The Changelog – Episode #466

Song Encoder: $STDOUT

a Changelog Special on the intersection of software & music

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Welcome to Song Encoder, a special series of The Changelog podcast featuring people who create at the intersection of software and music. This episode features $STDOUT and contains explicit language.

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I am $STDOUT the rapper. I’m a fan of tech and rap songs. It’s my thing. [$STDOUT song 00:00:40.08]

[02:01] I feel like it really started a long time ago. Maybe when I was 13-14, just an angsty teenager, writing angsty lyrics… And I think I wrote lyrics for years. I was really into rap growing up. Still am really into rap… But you know, I reached a certain age where the lyric-writing part of it, I was like “It’s not okay for me to be writing raps. I’m a grown-ass man.”

How I got bag into rapping for $STDOUT is actually kind of ridiculous… My older brother was starting a product, and he knew that I’m pretty good at rap. He was saying, “Hey, I want you to make a viral tech rap, so that I can market my product through your channel.” And I definitely did not go viral, but he bought me this decent mic to get started, and I made Hell.js as my first song. [$STDOUT song 00:02:59.22]

[03:42] I am a web developer, full stack. On the backend I’ve mostly done Rails applications, also done a bit of Go on the backend, and then on the frontend, when I started out, I think jQuery was still kind of the way to go. And then I’ve since gone into React and Vue.js. I don’t know, pretty normal full-stack developer. I primarily have worked at startups… So at my current job, the day-to-day team I work with is about seven people, but there’s about 200-ish engineers total at the company, and probably around 1,500(ish) people total. Yeah, and my current job is by far the largest company I’ve worked for. Prior to this it’s been less than 100, for sure… Like, one team was literally like seven people total. I’ve been coding for about seven years at this point.

You’ve been rapping longer than you’ve been coding.

Oh, yeah. Rapper-first. Coder second. All my songs are definitely borne out of real-world experiences that I’ve lived through… Personal frustrations, personal - just shit that I’ve gone through on the job. I think most of the times I do – I do have a few more like serious songs, but most of the time it also has to come with that inherent comedic element. That’s a must also. [$STDOUT song 00:05:16.28]

[05:47] I don’t like to rap about things that are too in the weeds technically, or super-niche technical topics. I try to find things where like “Yeah, I think most devs probably have gone through this, and it sucked for them, too.” If I can make a song about this and make them look back and laugh about that, then that’s a win. [$STDOUT song 00:06:06.17]

[07:41] Why do you think your songs resonate with devs?

Because they’re true. I live through something in the real world, and then I make fun of it. These songs aren’t coming from me having read blog posts about a topic and then wanting to create something about it. I was there, in the coding trenches, on every one of these topics. Probably at the time I was actually really feeling some pain about it, and then only later I decided to look back and make fun of it. I’m definitely “Become the comedian in times of stress” kind of guy, so a lot of these songs I wrote when I was actually stressed out about these topics. The truthiness there really comes through in the lyrics. [$STDOUT song 00:08:27.23]

True story?

Oh, 100% true story… That is exactly how it all went down. Let me tell you how this started… It’s at my current company. I think I am a really high output code. I’m good at - you give me a project, I’m gonna get it done, and I can do it leading a small team of other engineers. My managers saw that I was really good at this, and thought “Hey, let’s give him more responsibility”, which is kind of this paradox, because the new responsibilities are things that I’m not great at, and actually make me less effective at the thing that they recognize me as being really good at… I’m tech lead, and now I have less time to actually code, crank out these projects; instead, I am one-on-one-ing with people on the team, I’m doing presentations, I’m breaking down projects into tickets… Yeah, it was okay, but I’m not tech lead anymore. I very intentionally removed myself from that seat.

And you’ve put your feelings out to the internet about it.

Oh, yeah…

You vent it.

Yeah. And I know my managers heard this song, so… That was an interesting part of releasing this song. I think it was so obviously a critique of having been put into that tech lead position, and what it’s like at this company. On this song, I was a bit worried releasing it, because I knew my managers - they did the music, they like listening to it, and here I was, saying “Hey, I know you backed me, you put your faith in me and kind of elevated me up a little bit, and here I am, just kind of crapping on it.” But you know, I don’t wanna censor myself.

How did they respond? Did you talk to them about it?

We definitely had convos about it. I mean, especially just in the context of me now not being tech lead. Like, there were definitely combos about my frustrations in the role, which I don’t think are specific to this company. I think that tech lead title is always so vague, and it means about a million different things. It almost is different depending on the team you’re on.

I really think when you get that tech lead title, it almost means “Hey, any gaps you have on your team, you’re the person that has to fill them.” So that’s where that line of like “I’m tech lead, but I don’t actually lead tech. I just pick up whatever tasks are left” - that was basically my experience as a tech lead. I was definitely not the smartest engineer on the team, definitely not the most senior… I was just maybe the grittiest, willing to just - whatever needs to get done, I’ll get that shit done.

It was a good experience, and it did give me more visibility, just like – it was a good look for me, if I put my personal gains head-on. But yeah… I don’t ever need to do it again. [$STDOUT song 00:13:32.02]

[14:46] How long does it take you to make one of these?

I think it really depends. The bottleneck is definitely the lyric-writing. When it comes to the beat-making, I typically find one that I like writing to, just on YouTube or something, and then I’ll kind of make a beat that’s similar in vibe, and beats per minute, and all that stuff.

On the lyrics writing side, I feel like usually these songs start with like two lines that I really love. My next song is probably gonna be about integrations, and I just thought of these two lines of like “I keep finding bugs in your API, but you tell me that it’s by design…” And I’m just like “God, that’s good. I can start from there.”

And then how quickly I can expand on that - yeah, it really depends on the topic. Sometimes it just flows and I’m done writing in a couple hours; sometimes it’s weeks before I really finish something.

A lot of your tracks borrow beats and flows from popular songs. For example, “Opinions” uses “I like it like that.” [$STDOUT song 00:15:53.05]

[16:07] “Interviews covers that famous Eminem flow from the 8 Mile soundtrack. [$STDOUT song 00:16:14.01] Is this something you’re gonna keep doing?

I don’t think I will. I think I have grown out of it. It was much easier to start with a song that already exists; it already kind of has a theme that you can twist into a parody about tech… But yeah, like you said, I used to not make beats, now I do. I think I’ve definitely grown as a rapper through making this channel.

So what does growth look like from here?

I mean, I’m always trying to get better at my beat-making skills. I still kind of have to do a bit of mimicry when I’m making beats. I definitely wanna get better at mixing vocals in with the beats.

What about on the software side of things?

I definitely think about how I can grow as an engineer. I mean, you have to, right? Engineering just evolves so quickly. The Hell.js song I put out, about the JavaScript ecosystem - that was a few years ago. It probably already is super-stale. If you wanna stay in this business, you definitely cannot become static and content with where you’re at. I definitely do like getting a variety of experiences. I think that lends itself really well to being able to just rap about more things.

Are you ever afraid that maybe you’ll run out of things to rap about?

Yeah. That’s probably my primary concern doing $STDOUT, is what happens when I’ve said everything I have to say. I actually was feeling that way pretty recently, actually. There was like a five-month gap, I think; the longest gap, where I dropped no music, and I just kind of felt like “I’ve said everything I wanna say.”

I think in reality, as long as I have a day job, I’m gonna find more things to talk shit about… Because I’ll bet all my money that there’ll be things that frustrate me in any job, any position. I don’t think I will run out of songs to make until I literally have zero complaints about work, which will never happen. [$STDOUT song 00:18:31.06]

[21:11] You also have tracks that are more serious…

Yeah.

Would you rather make somebody laugh or make them think?

I mean, if I just look at what I’ve actually done, my answer is I wanna make you laugh like 90% of the time, and then drop a serious truth bomb on you. Make you question all your life decisions. [$STDOUT song 00:21:39.13]

[22:10] Tech right now is such a privileged space. When I talk to anybody that works in any other job, I look at my day-to-day and I’m like “This isn’t even a fuckin’ job.” I make six figures sitting on my ass, and a bad day for me is like “Oh, I’m a little more stressed out than usual.” That’s as bad as it gets.

So I think we all have the right to be stressed out and complain about work and stuff, but for me, I think any complaint a dev in America has is just kind of like inherently funny, because we are so privileged. But at the same time, where I feel like I wore my heart on my sleeve the most is the most recent serious song, called “3 AM in San Francisco.” I think there I try to speak to this cognitive dissonance between what we actually do, and how good our lives are. [$STDOUT song 00:23:09.29]

[23:31] I do like making people look at that (how would you call it) dissonance, I guess, and think about that. I think it’s important. But yeah, mostly I want you to have a good time listening to my music.

What has the reaction been to your serious tracks?

I think some people really appreciate it, and you can see it in the comments. They’ll say like “I thought you were just the funny man. This is actually making me think.” On the 3 AM in San Francisco song, I remember one comment that kind of sticks in my brain, where somebody said “I’m leaving the tech industry, and you basically just spelled out why I want to leave.”

So I do think even the serious songs - I hope they make people think… But definitely, people prefer the funny stuff. If I had to sum up the reaction, it would be like “Hm… Nice try, but you’re the funny man. That was okay, but like… Go back to being funny.” [laughs]

I have no hard feelings when I see a reaction like that. I’m like, “Yeah, I get it. I pulled you in here with jokes. I kind of like tricked you by dropping this serious song.” But at the end of the day, it’s my channel, and I’ll probably keep making serious songs, because I have fun making those too, so… Whatever.

So the comments on your YouTube channel are overwhelmingly positive. Here, I grabbed a couple for-examples… WinnerBytes says “Love your stuff. You pick the best beats and make the best lyrics.” Joanna says she revisits your “Estimates” song every couple of months. “It’s so simply good, funny, accurate and well done. Dude, I’m grateful you did this.” Ben Beeler asks a question, which is my question as well. He says “Keep going. I do not understand why you don’t get more views.”

Why am I not more popular. That’s the root of the question. I wanna reflect that question back onto the world. Why am I not more popular…? Nah, I’m just kidding.

[laughs]

It’s also something I’ve wondered about, because you would assume that anything with a 99% positive reaction would just keep getting shared, and be bigger. I totally agree. I think one aspect for sure could just be like a lot of people don’t like rap. That’s one thing. That’s really all… Yeah, I don’t know.

That’s your only take? Well, how about this - perhaps it’s the intersection that’s small. So a lot of people like rap, a lot of people program, but not a lot of programmers like rap, maybe.

That is probably true. This is definitely a very niche thing I’m doing. If I could just, out of all the developers I know, count how many also are like bumping rap on a weekly basis, I can think of like two… So yeah, that might be it. But my hope is that the content is good enough that this could be somebody who historically hasn’t liked rap, this could be their gateway artist into rap. [$STDOUT song 00:26:36.09]

[27:35] Let’s say that your channel blows up. Somehow, everybody just sees the light and they agree with you, and everybody is bumping $STDOUT… So much so that this can become – this is a typical story nowadays… All of a sudden you become a creator, full-time. “Wow, look at this… I’m making money off my rap. I can do live shows, people show up, they attend my events, they’re buying my merch”, all the good things.

Yeah.

You don’t have to write software anymore. What happens next?

First of all, wouldn’t that be something? I’m just picturing a crowd of engineers rocking out to – I just imagine a bunch of really socially awkward people with their hands in their pockets, while I’m just going apeshit on the stage. That’d be hilarious.

[28:15] They’re supposed to wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care…

Oh yeah, yeah…

…but they’re not. Their hands are in their pockets, because they do care. [laughter]

Yeah, that’s a good question… If I could stop programming and just be a rapper, would I do that? I mean, I think hell yeah. First of all, just in terms of life path, do I wanna look back and say “I was a mediocre coder” or say “I was a rapper”? I think the rapper route is probably cooler. But if I go back to how this all started when I was younger, angsty teenager me definitely dreamt of making it as a rapper… So if adult me realized that dream, that’d be awesome.

Being a coder is a great job. I think it’s almost impossible to beat as a dayjob in terms of creature comfort, money, all that stuff. It is definitely not my passion though. If I could just stop working tomorrow, I don’t think I’d write a single line of code again. It’s fun, again, great job, but I think I do have a certain level of disdain for coding and tech in general. I mean, go figure… I talk so much shit about it on my channel.

To me, it’s like - my goal is to think about coding and learn as a coder while I’m working my 9-to-5. After that, I don’t wanna think about code, at all.

Don’t you have to think about it the entire time you’re writing these lyrics?

So keyword being “That’s my goal.”

Oh, okay. [laughs]

I think in reality disconnecting from work is a struggle for me. I mean, it’s hard as a coder to get your head in a problem space, be processing that all day, and then to just shut it off when the day ends. So this is something I actively battle against, I’ll put it that way.

Do you have an endgame for $STDOUT?

Not really. If I’m being honest, a lot of my motivation with $STDOUT is just my dumb ego. I think anybody making music, if they say “Oh, it’s just about making someone’s day better” - bullshit. Ego is such a big part of it. I mean, if one day I was at a conference and somebody walked up to me and was like “Hey, are you $STDOUT?” I think I could die happy after that. But this channel is 99.999% just shits and giggles for me. I don’t really think about it seriously. There’s no “How do I grow? How do I expand my audience?”, none of that. I’m just like “What’s something funny I can say?” and “What’s a sick beat? Let me put those together.”

And now, here’s “Integrations”, a brand new track by $STDOUT the rapper, in its entirety. [$STDOUT song 00:31:06.18]

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