Episode #98: Making Serverless Accessible with Bit Project with Daniel Kim
April 26, 2021 • 31 minutes
On this episode, Jeremy chats with Daniel Kim about why serverless is a great starting place for junior developers, how the program scopes projects for beginners, what types of projects students can build, and how you can become a Bit Project mentor to help others learn serverless.
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About Daniel Kim
Daniel Kim (He/Him) is a Senior Developer Relations Engineer at New Relic and the founder of Bit Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to making tech accessible to underserved communities. He wants to inspire generations of students in tech to be the best they can be through inclusive, accessible developer education. He is passionate about diversity & inclusion in tech, good food, and dad jokes.
Jeremy: Hi, everyone. I'm Jeremy Daly and this is Serverless Chats. Today I'm chatting with Daniel Kim. Hey, Daniel. Thanks for joining me.
Daniel: Hi, Jeremy. How's it going?
Jeremy: It's going real ...
Daniel: I'm glad to be here.
Jeremy: Well, I'm glad that you're here. So, you are a Senior Developer Relations Engineer at New Relic, but you're also the founder of Bit Project. So, I would love it if you could tell the listeners a little bit about yourself and your background and what Bit Project is all about.
Daniel: That sounds great, Jeremy. My name is Daniel. I'm a Senior Developer Relations Engineer at New Relic, which means I get to help the community and go find developers and help them become better developers. And I got into developer relations because I founded a school club and now it's a nonprofit, but it started as a school club, called Bit Project, where me and my friends gathered together to teach each other awesome web technologies. And yeah, that's how I got my start. And I am still running Bit Project as a nonprofit to help students around the world build and ship projects using awesome technologies and help them learn and become better developers.
Jeremy: Right. And one of those awesome technologies is serverless. And that's what I want to talk to you about today because this is a really great program that you're running here that helps make Serverless more accessible to more people, which is what I'm all about, right? So, I absolutely love this. So, let's go back and talk a little bit about Bit Project and just get into how it got started. You mentioned it was a project you were doing with some college friends, but how did it go from that to what it is now?
Daniel: Yeah. So, I started this, I think, late freshman year when I was still in school at UC Davis. I was not a computer science major, actually. I was an electrical engineering major, but as I got into technology and seeing all the possibilities of things you can build with cool tech, I was like, "I really need to get into web development because this is so awesome. I can make changes on the fly. I can see awesome things. I can build awesome things with my hands." Well, with my computer. So, yeah, I got a couple of friends together because I'm a very social person so I like to build and learn things together with my friends. So, I got a couple of them together. We rented a lecture hall and then we just taught each other everything we knew to each other. For example, I was super into Gatsby and React, so I was teaching my friends React. Other friends were super into backend development, so they were teaching me things like how to design APIs and how to connect a frontend to a backend, like really awesome things to each other.
And it started like that until I decided to scale the program so I could help more and more of my fellow students. So, instead of doing four-person meetups, I would organize a workshop. And those workshops turned into sponsored workshops with funding, which meant a lot of free food, which meant more people, and it just ballooned into this awesome student organization where we always had the best food. We had free Boba, free pizza, and we would share with each other all these awesome technologies and tools that we learned how to work with using in our projects. So, that's how it started.
Jeremy: Right. And then, so once you got this thing rolling, obviously you're seeing some success with it, then you get into developer relations?
Daniel: Yeah, definitely. So, that's when I understood what I wanted to do with them for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be that production engineer on-call all the time. I wanted to be that engineer that helped other engineers become more successful and find the joy in programming. I love seeing when developers find that "aha moment" when they're learning something new and help them become better developers. And I found that out when I was teaching my friends how to program because I got more joy out of seeing other people succeed than me succeeding myself. So, I was like, "Developer relations is the path for me." So, that's why I directly entered developer relations right out of college, because I was like, "This is what I'm meant to do." Because one of my favorite things to do is figure out how to break down really complex ideas and concepts into more fun, easy-to-understand chunks so everyone can succeed and have a good time. That's my thing.
Jeremy: No, I love that. I love that because I feel like, especially people who are maybe not traditional tech people or don't have a traditional tech background, sometimes it just takes a little bit of twisting of the presentation for them to really understand that. And I love that idea of just reaching out and trying to help more people because I'm on the total same page with you here. So, now you go and so you get into developer relations and you've got this Bit Project thing. And so is this something that you wanted to keep as a side project? What was the next evolution of that?
Daniel: Yeah, definitely. So, I think Bit Project is an extension to the advocacy work I do at New Relic. Because at New Relic, my job is not to push New Relic the product. We have amazing product marketing managers and other folks who do that. My job is to make it easy for people to level up the community, like the people in the community to level up as developers and help the community. And one way I do that is through Bit Project. So, a lot of the work I do at New Relic mirrors or is parallel to the work I'm doing at Bit Project, where I help make complex ideas more accessible to developers. So, in a way, it's not more of a side project. It's like a parallel project of what I'm doing at New Relic, what I'm doing at Bit Project.
Jeremy: Right. And so in terms of the things that you're teaching at Bit Project too because that's the other thing too. I think leveling up developers is one of those things where, I mean, if somebody wants to go learn HTML or CSS or one of those things, there's probably plenty of resources for them to go and do that. There's probably nine million YouTube tutorials out there, right?
Jeremy: But for concepts like Serverless, right? And I mean even Serverless with Azure and AWS and some of these other things, these are newer things. I've actually interviewed quite a few candidates for a recent position that I'm trying to fill and not a lot of them are learning this stuff in college.
Daniel: Definitely. Something that we really wanted to instill to our students was that this is not your average bootcamp or course. We're not promising any six-figure salary after our bootcamps. That's not what we're promising. What we're promising is the opportunity to learn a concept that is foreign to many developers, even seasoned developers, because it's a relatively new technology, and we teach you the tools we give you and teach you the ways to become successful. So, we won't teach you everything you need to know, but we will teach you how to find the things you need to know to become successful developers. So, we help establish a good foundation for developers to learn new things and then build things on their own.
Jeremy: Right. And this is ...
Daniel: That's the focus of our program.
Jeremy: Yeah. And this is completely free, right?
Daniel: It's completely free. We're run thanks to the generosity of our corporate sponsors. So, shout out to them. Yeah. So, it's completely free for all students. So, please go and apply if you're interested and you are a student.
Jeremy: So, one of the major things that you focus on, and I know that you have different courses or different workshops that you're going through. And I know some of the other ones are a little bit earlier like the DevOps one. But you have a pretty robust serverless. I mean, that's the main thing, right? Teaching people to build serverless applications on Microsoft Azure. So, I'm curious, especially having somebody jump in from maybe a non-traditional tech background or no tech background at all, and also students of all ages, right? We're not just talking about high school or college kids here, that jumping into something like serverless, what makes serverless such a good, I guess, jumping in point for the types of candidates that you're looking for?
It just magically works. We try not to overwhelm students with all the infrastructure talk and more focus on the code that they're writing. And I was really inspired because one of my mentors for my career is Chloe Condon from Microsoft, and I remember her writing a lot of blogs around getting started with serverless. She built this fake boyfriend app with a Twilio and serverless. And I was like, "Hey, this is not that unapproachable for students to get started with serverless functions," because it was only maybe 40, 50 lines of code. It integrated multiple APIs. So, I was like, "This is the perfect medium," because it's relatively simple to understand the idea of just writing code and deploying it to a magical kingdom where the magical kingdom controls everything, you know?
Daniel: So, that's my inspiration for using serverless as a medium to teach people how the modern full-stack app works, if that makes sense.
Jeremy: Yeah. No, I totally agree, and I use this quite a bit where I tell people when I was a kid when I first started programming in the late 1990s, everything was CGI bins, right? So, we were just uploading code using FTP, but it was seriously magical. Now, again, it wouldn't scale, right. But it was magical in terms of how that happened. But even if it didn't scale, the point where you can get to that, what do we call it? The "aha moment," right? Where you're like, "Oh, this is how that works," or, "Oh, I get it now." I think you just get there faster with serverless.
Daniel: Exactly. I think that's one of the reasons I love serverless is that we have students spin up a serverless function day one of the camp. We don't wait until day three or day four to teach them how to build with serverless. We're like, "Hey, this is the environment that you're going to work in," and then we have them write their own serverless functions based on a boilerplate code that we have written already. So, we try to make the barrier to entry as low as possible, so students don't get intimidated by the word "serverless."
Jeremy: Right. Right. Yeah. And I think also it's probably a good place to get people started thinking about just what the cloud is and how the cloud works in general.
Daniel: Yeah. Definitely. Some of our students have never even heard of what an API is. So, we really take students from zero to understanding how different services work on the internet and how we can take advantage of services and other code that other people have written to write our own applications. Because a lot of students, especially junior developers, don't realize how little you have to code to actually get an app working. Because most likely there's someone in the world who's coded something that you're looking for to implement already. So, it's more like a jigsaw puzzle than trying to build something yourself.
Jeremy: Right. It's that whole Lego concept, just sticking those building blocks together. So, you mentioned, though, some of your students they've never even heard of an API or they don't know what an API is. So, I'm just thinking from the perspective of an absolute beginner, how do you scope a project for an absolute beginner to get them to somewhere where they actually have something that gets them to that "aha moment," makes them feel like, "Hey, I've actually done something interesting here," but not overwhelm them with things like open API spec 3.0? You know what I mean? All this kind of stuff.
Daniel: Yeah. I think one of the most important things when you're designing a curriculum is understanding the pain points of the student. So, this curriculum was designed by a bunch of students. I'm not the only one that wrote this curriculum. This curriculum had a lot of contributors from all over the world who are high school and college students. We knew that we didn't want to go too in-depth from the beginning because we have a lot of students from non-traditional backgrounds that don't have a lot of previous knowledge. So, what we try to do is set up guide rails and have boilerplates and things like that to ensure that they're successful. Because the worst thing you can do when you're working with a junior developer is just overwhelm them with information and have really, really hard assignments that lead to frustration.
So, we try to make that path really, really easy. But instead, what we try to do is have stretch goals or have extra-curricular assignments where they can apply what they have learned. So, if they're a little bit more advanced and they're getting the concepts and they're understanding at a deeper level how things work, they're able to practice and hone those skills. So, what we do is we try to work with our mentors, our fabulous mentors who are engineers in the industry, to help students code those stretch goals and help them understand at a deeper level if they have the capacity to do so. So, we try to customize the experience for every student based on their previous experience.
Jeremy: Right. And I think another important thing is setting expectations with the students as well. I mean, you mentioned earlier that this isn't a bootcamp that you're guaranteeing $100,000 salaries when you walk out. I think that that is something, to me, where I think that level of honesty and truth is really important because I think there are a lot of these eight to 12-week boot camps that over-promise. And I don't know. I mean, I've been doing this for 24 years, and I don't feel like I'm an expert on anything and I've been doing it for a very long time. So, eight weeks doesn't get you to be an expert in anything, but if you can become productive, that's pretty exciting.
Daniel: Yeah. Our goal is not to get you a six-figure job. Because that would be nice, but I feel like that's straight-up lying. Because I don't know all the students before they start personally, and I can't promise them a six-figure job. That's just ridiculous to me. But what I can promise is that you will ship an app. That's what I can promise. And I feel like when you're shipping an app and you're writing code to build an actual app that will work, you learn so much. You learn how to plan for a software project, how to ask questions, how to look for things on Google. So, that's the things we promise is the experiences, not necessarily the shiny six-figure salary. Even though I wish I could promise that. That would be amazing.
Jeremy: Right. Yeah. And I think probably the greatest skill you can teach anyone as a developer is how to Google and how to use stack overflow.
Jeremy: All right. So, you mentioned something about customizing, trying to make sure that the curriculum is adapted for the particular student. So, tell me a little bit more about that because that sounds really interesting.
Daniel: Yeah. So, one of the reasons that I find our content and curriculum really special is that it's open-ended. It's not like they're programming exactly what every other student programs. So, for the first four weeks, we teach how serverless functions work, how to set up your development environment, everything through pair programming. So students, instead of having lectures, we have senior engineers actually pair program with junior developers, younger students, or students with less experience, so they can ask questions in the chat to learn as they are doing it with a mentor. And during the last four weeks, we actually have the students apply the things they've learned in the first four weeks through pair programming into their own applications. So, we teach them, "Hey, by week one, you should have this part of your project done. Week two, you should have this part of your project done." But we don't really specify exactly what their project should be. So, at the end of the camp, every single student has a different project they have built based on the interests they have, which has been really awesome to see.
Jeremy: Well, that's also great, too. It's one of those things where, when your English teacher forces you to read Romeo and Juliet and you're not interested in Shakespeare, it's really hard to excel in that sometimes. So, letting people pick and choose where they go, I think is, again, is just a really good motivator and an excellent way. And again, just not over-promising. Just teaching people some of the basics, and then you have something to work on, something to iterate on, something to go a little bit deeper on and start understanding. If you just know that there are headers when you call an API, then you can maybe start doing some research as to what the other headers are and what I can do with those. And I think that level of curiosity would be really great for somebody and again, would excite them and get them going down that path.
Daniel: Definitely. And I think the best way that students learn is actually trying to implement the things they have in their head. Because some of these projects that students have built for their capstone projects have been very, very complicated using serverless functions. One of the students actually built a Dropbox clone using serverless functions, and it was actually amazing. I couldn't do that, honestly, but she built it in three weeks, I think. So, I think it's the creativity that really, really I find impressive and amazing every cohort we have, is the variance in projects that we have for every single student.
Jeremy: Right. Yeah. So, what are some of those projects? Because I think that'd be really interesting. Just give some examples of the sort of things you can build, right? Because the "Hello, World" tutorials are out there. People can go and probably cobble something together, but it sounds to me like the students that you have are building something that is actually, maybe not-production ready, but it is something that solves a real problem and it's a real solution to that. So, what are some of those different projects?
Daniel: Definitely. One of our students, Bo, built an IoT heart rate monitor that connected to a serverless function. So, every time that the heartbeat went over a certain number, it would send a Twilio text message to the family members of whoever was subscribed to that particular heartbeat monitor. And he built that because his grandfather was suffering with some heart issues, and it was really important to his family that they knew that he was doing okay. They got alerted every time his heartbeat got too fast. So, he actually built this whole thing using a Raspberry PI. He had a heartbeat sensor that was attached to a bracelet and it actually connected to a Serverless function. And he demoed it and he actually did jumping jacks to get his heart rate up. It actually worked, which was super awesome. We got to demo during our demo day.
Another student built a face mask detector. So, she would have someone take a picture on her website of someone wearing a face mask. And it would tell, using some cognitive APIs, if someone was wearing a mask or not. And she designed that because she knew a lot of local businesses who didn't have staff directly in the entrance of the business, and she wanted to make sure there was a solution where the owners could make sure someone was wearing a mask before they entered the establishment. So, that was a really cool project. There was another student who was actually in his forties who was a mining engineer who wanted to make a career change. So, he actually built this awesome serverless function that sent out earthquake notifications based on the data from the government, which was really, really awesome as well. So, there's so many projects that students have built with serverless functions, ranging everything from IoT to big data and so many things that I've learned actually, by watching all these projects being built.
Jeremy: Yeah. That's amazing. And actually I think that something that's really interesting, you mentioned the gentleman with the career change, is that developers, I think, especially career developers, I mean, we get narrowly focused on solving software problems, right?
Jeremy: And we maybe don't think so much about some of these other real-world problems that exist. So, that idea of taking your existing life experiences and problems that you've been dealing with and have a solution maybe in your head, but you can't express that. That's really frustrating, right? So, being able to do something like this and being able to express that, I think that's absolutely amazing.
Daniel: Definitely. And I think this is one of the reasons why I find this program really rewarding for both students and the people who actually run the program because they see folks who have zero experience getting to the point where they can build the things that are in their head, which I think is magical.
Jeremy: Yeah. No, I totally agree. Also, I think you said there's some other case studies on the blog?
Daniel: Yeah. So, if you go to bitproject.org and go to the blog, we have a bunch of case studies that are still being uploaded. So, every week we're going to have new student projects that are going to be uploaded there. So, if you want to see some of the cool stuff that our students have built, feel free to go check it out.
Jeremy: Awesome. All right. So, you just mentioned that this is a really rewarding thing. And I know for me, I do a lot of open source projects. I try to help as many people as I can. I don't run a nonprofit that runs courses. Maybe someday. But I do get exactly what you're saying because it is great to get that feedback, to see someone be successful because you've helped enable that. So, I know you're looking for mentors, right?
Daniel: Yeah, definitely. We're looking for mentors who have previous experience or passion with serverless to mentor students, to get them to that point where they can build their own apps. So, we'd love to have you if you are interested and have a couple of hours per week to spare.
Jeremy: Right. What's the requirement or the time commitment? It's just a few hours a week?
Daniel: We recommend four to five hours a week to just work directly one-on-one with the student, and previous experience in serverless or just regular full-stack development is quite encouraged because we want to make sure that you are able to answer some of the technical questions that students might have around the content.
Jeremy: Right. And you mentioned that, again, just going back to the mining example, but it sounds like that gentlemen was a little bit older. So, what's the age range of the students that you have in this program?
Daniel: We don't have a minimum or maximum age that we accept. We just care about passion and the willingness to complete the program. Because the program is completely free, the standard that we set for our applicants is not of experience, but more of passion and desire to learn and become a successful developer.
Jeremy: Right, right. Yeah. So, what about for mentors or people who are looking to do this? Again, I know it's rewarding to work with people and to help people. You know it's rewarding. What can you tell people, though, that might be interested in this? What are some of the other benefits, I guess, of being a mentor?
Daniel: Yeah. Some of the really cool benefits I've seen is that we've been working directly with the Azure Functions team at Microsoft to mentor our students because they are using Azure Functions as the platform to host their serverless functions. And we've actually had PMs that are building as their functions, work with our students to get new ideas for product features, as well as engineers getting direct feedback on the features they worked on only a couple of weeks prior. Which I think is quite magical because I've seen these older PMs who are building that product the students are using and the students are very blunt, let me tell you. So they're like, "This feature makes no sense." So, a couple of weeks later it's magically fixed for some reason. I don't know how that could have happened, but things get resolved quite quickly when the student feedback comes in.
Jeremy: Yeah. And also the other thing is, is that again, it's feedback that's, I guess, untainted from the experience of being a developer, right?
Jeremy: So, it's like that childhood honesty that is what probably every product management team needs to figure that stuff out. So, all right. Well, so where are you going with this? What do you hope to do with Bit Project? I mean, is this something you want to grow or you want to add more courses? What's the future?
Daniel: Definitely. That's a great question. So, as I work for New Relic, we are pivoting to create more content and more courses and more interactive learning materials and experiences in the DevOps field. So, right now we're creating content around observability, around container orchestration, things like that, that are more niche skills that students could learn to better their chances of getting a job as a site reliability engineer or a DevOps engineer. But most importantly, right now what we're trying to do is make sure that we're ready to scale as soon as possible because we feel like we have something really special here where we're teaching students how to ship apps, not to learn specific concepts like HTML or CSS. I think we have a really unique model here of how we're teaching students and how we're working with industry, leveraging cloud advocates and engineers who want to volunteer their specialized skill to better the community. So, right now I see the future as us helping make and lead more engineers of the future so we can have better services and better internet, hopefully, in a couple of years or a couple of decades.
Jeremy: Well, it's a very noble goal. And so what about data science? I know there's a thing on the site about data science and I think you're doing some work with universities around that, right?
Daniel: Yeah, definitely. So, we have a program called Bit University where we create these really easy-to-integrate data science courses for humanities classrooms, because there's a huge demand right now for humanities students to get data science experience, to get research opportunities as well as job opportunities. But a lot of them actually don't have access to data science courses because they're a humanities major, especially at smaller schools. So, what we do is we partner with universities like Cal State Fullerton and Sacramento State University to provide data science courses specifically tailored for humanities majors at these schools partnering with professors. So, yeah, that's the program and it's been super successful and we've had so many humanities students learn the basic skills they need to get these internships and these research opportunities, which has been really rewarding.
Jeremy: Yeah. That's awesome. So Daniel, is there anything else you want to tell the listeners about Bit Project?
Daniel: Definitely. Yeah. So, if you or your company want to help us make more technical content, like let's say you work in DevOps or you even work in Serverless functions that you want to extend the work we're doing, especially if you're an advocate, please reach out to me. I'm on Twitter. I'm on email. So, please reach out to me to work together on more technical content because my job is to make things more assessable. So, if you want to make anything, whether it's your area of expertise or something you think could be more accessible, I'd love to work with you to make sure that happens. And that is a free resource that's available to the community. That's my plug.
Jeremy: That's awesome.
Daniel: Reach out to me.
Jeremy: That's awesome. No, I love it. Daniel, I appreciate, one, you being here and sharing this with everybody, but also the work that you're doing with the community is just amazing. The more people we can get into serverless and the more people we can get to understand this next generation of, I don't know, applications, I guess you want to call it, is absolutely a very, very noble goal. So, you mentioned Twitter. So, it's just learnwdaniel, right?
Daniel: Definitely. Yeah.
Jeremy: And then also the Bit Project has a Twitter, just bitPRJ. And then if you're interested in volunteering, you go to bitproject.org/volunteer. And students, if students want to sign up, how do they do that? They just go to bitproject.org?
Daniel: Yeah. You can go directly to apply at bitproject.org, or if you want more information about the program, just go to bitproject. There's a huge banner at the top that will lead you directly to that website.
Jeremy: Awesome. All right. Well, I will make sure I get all that into the show notes. Thanks again, Daniel.