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Ep 36: Marcia Villalba AWS Developer Advocate

Ryan Jones: Welcome to the Talking Serverless podcast. I'm your host Ryan Jones, joined today by Marcia Villalba, a senior developer advocate at AWS. They host a “FOOBAR” a YouTube channel where Marcia publishes content every week related to serverless and cloud. Marcia has been developing professionally for 15 years in the software industry and has a deep knowledge of building applications in the cloud and DevOps processes.

Ryan Jones: Q: How has the year started for you? How is everything going?
Marcia Villalba: I'm good. I'm really happy. Due to the pandemic, I had the opportunity to move roles. So now I'm an online developer advocate. And for me, that's the perfect role because I love to create content online. Basically, my job is to sit in the studio, record videos and podcasts and have fun. So I cannot complain. It's been a good start of the year. I'm full of energy to keep putting more content out.

Q: When you're in the studio, is that for FOOBAR, or AWS?
Marcia Villalba: Our job as developer advocates is to deliver content and talk with and create relationships with different members of the community. We try to help bring all this noise that comes from so many services and new features into something that is more comprehensive for normal human beings. So basically, my job is to create content for that. I write a lot, I do podcasts, and I do YouTube. All the content that I produce nowadays 100% online. I'm missing Tiktok, I should do some dancing! And I have a small studio, where I record my videos.

Q: You've been writing content for quite a while. Have you gained any insights around how to write the best version of an article? How have you grown in content creation?
Marcia Villalba: Oh, I have learned a lot. I started last year, around October, to write in a news blog for AWS, the one that is run by Jeff Barr. For me that has been one of the biggest achievements in my AWS career, because I'm such a fan of Jeff Barr and have been since day one. His blogs always really talk to me because he has this personal approach with tutorials, and he is hands-on. I'm the type of person that is very bad at reading documentation- I like to do things. So, when you give me a tutorial on how to do something, I will do it and then I will break it. So when Jeff invited me to write in his blog, I was like, wow, is that really happening? I learned a lot writing there, because we have a whole system in place to write blogs. It's not like when you're writing on your own blog that nobody's reviewing, or you're working on your own. Here we are writing first on content that nobody has seen before. It's super cool. We have to work with the services teams, and usually we are the first customers the service team has, so we are seeing the feature for the first time, from an outsider's perspective. Trying to understand what the feature does and how to explain it to people that are not super involved with the feature is always super fun. The first demos and tutorials and trying to give feedback to the service teams is super eye-opening.

When you work in these types of blogs, there are a lot of moving parts. We have copywriting in place, so we have a person that is reviewing our English. My English tends to be pretty bad because I'm not a Native Speaker, so I make a lot of mistakes. But that's not the important thing when you're writing, it's more about telling the story. That's why the copywriter is there, to help me create better English, but the story is mine at the end of the day. I have a lot of tools in place when it comes to writing, for example, one thing I love to do is to put all my blog posts in Polly and listen to it. I think that helped me a lot to understand whether the text and the flow make sense. It's like somebody is reading your own text to you, so you pay more attention to each individual word. Now that Polly has these super voices that sound like real humans reading text to you, it's amazing. You can really notice a lot of errors in the flow of the story and see if things don't make sense. So for me, that was one of the most interesting things when writing.
The Amazon culture is all about writing. It's one of the key values in Amazon culture, to write. So there are a lot of resources inside the company to improve your writing skills. I've been taking a lot of those internal courses to help give a more concise message. We are so used to putting in a lot of complicated words and going around in circles; at least, that was my experience coming from school. The more complicated and longer the better. It sounds more important, but when you're writing technical documentation, or writing for others, simpler and crispier is better. Plus, a lot of people that read these are not Native English speakers, so the simpler you write, the more people will be able to read your article.

Q: What are the benefits to a company when they encourage their people to write?
Marcia Villalba: Well, it has many benefits. I think the biggest benefit is that it is more inclusive, because when you go to a typical Amazon meeting, the first thing that will happen is that everybody will get the document to read. It's not someone standing in front presenting something. Everybody will get a document, and you can read on your own time in your own space, so everybody can take time to understand the concepts in the way that they understand the best. When somebody is standing and presenting, you have to really go through all the information as fast or slow as they do. But when you have the text in front of you, all the information is written down and everybody can start giving their opinions about the text. It becomes a very interesting discussion. Online, we are using all these beautiful tools to give feedback and to improve the documents. Whatever you do, you write it down so there are records of projects or whatever you had in your head. I love the writing culture. I'm a very organised person, so I write everything; for me, going into a company that really embraces writing is perfect.

Ryan Jones: "I've been in a lot of meetings where somebody goes 100 miles per hour with no documents and no way for anybody to have access to that slideshow ahead of time."

Marcia Villalba: Yes. And documents have different levels of depth. So you can have the document with what you want to present on it, but then you can always have the appendix with more data on things you want to go into deeply. Many times when we go to a presentation that is full of data, everybody falls asleep, and nobody can understand all the data. But if, when you are writing the story or a document, you write it and then combine it with particular data then people can get the data without really needing to sit down and listen to that information. I think that's also very valuable and even more so if you cannot listen to numbers for two hours. I cannot do that. But I really like watching and looking at tables and graphs and things like that, because I'm very visual.

Content Creation
Q: How do you strike that balance between loading things full of technical data and telling the high-level story?
Marcia Villalba: I think that's a really hard thing when you're writing for others. The most important thing for me is to imagine what your audience looks like; what kind of people are looking at your content or reading your articles, because that will help you to talk in the right language. I imagine that people watching my videos in FOOBAR serverless are developers, with some level of experience. So I talk to them like I am talking to myself; if it's a topic I have covered 20 times, I use more AWS jargon. Sometimes when there is a new topic, I go more for developer concepts that are outside the AWS ecosystem. But still, there may be advanced concepts for somebody that is totally new to programming, because I think it's very hard to reach everybody. It's the same for the blog posts, I try to think about who the person reading is and try to write for them. Most of the content I produce is for developers, because that's what I am in, and I always want to write or create the content that I would love to read. That's how I create my talks and how I create all my content.

Ryan Jones: "This idea of matching your audiences is really important. And the fact that you've recognised that your audience are developers makes perfect sense."

Marcia Villalba: When you segment your audience, you will not grow as fast. So if I am doing things like getting started with JavaScript, then I will see hundreds of thousands of subscribers. But if I pick a niche, like more advanced serverless topics, I will see less. The growth of my channel and all my content is really tied to the growth of serverless, but I think there is a space for everything, and I don't do it for the numbers. I do it because I love it. So if I am always doing basic JavaScript, I will get so bored, but when I go into figuring out how to play with a new feature or Explorer, that is so much fun.

Ryan Jones: "This brings up a really interesting point which is high growth versus slow sustainable growth, and not sacrificing your actual passion. If you make an intro to JavaScript video, you could get 100,000 views or something, right? But if you make a deep dive into a serverless framework or some service on AWS, it may only be a few 100 or 1000.

The Funnel
Q: What are your thoughts on high versus slow growth?
Marcia Villalba: There's this concept of the funnel. Let's go back to YouTube, which is a platform that I know quite well. But I think this applies to any platform. So you have the top of the funnel. That's the content that is very searchable and is trendier. Here is where you have the options like making a JavaScript tutorial. So for example, my content for getting started with Amplify, CDK, or ion permissions, something that is aligned to my content, but still something that people will search. Then you have the middle of the funnel, and those are shorter videos, or shorter posts that are very clear, like a solution to a very specific problem. And then you have the bottom of the funnel, which is for your hardcore fans. These are like my interviews I have had recently. They are a long format for my audience that loves to sit and hear me and my guests for one hour or more. I know those videos will not get a lot of views, but the core of my audience will enjoy them a lot, and they will learn a lot of really new things out of them. So I think it's very important when you're working with content to have a strategy on how people will find you and how people will stay in your content. If not, you will have empty subscribers. If you create a very trendy video that is very viral, you capture a lot of people, but then there is nothing else for them.

Q: How do you balance between top of the funnel, middle and lower funnel content?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I think it's based on how many cool things I want to share, so I don't have a clear strategy or definition on that. If I have some videos that are bringing a lot of people and I have a lot of cool other things to do, I might do other things for a while. Then if I see that the top of the funnel is getting colder, I might do some videos in there. So for me, it's very organic, very casual. I'm not an organisation, so I take it very casually. But I try not to put a lot of long format content, for example, because I know that's something that will take a lot of time for me to put out and it doesn't get the subscribers or amount of watch time that YouTube likes. You have to play with the algorithm of the platform that you're working with.

Online Impact
Q: What led you to starting the FOOBAR channel? How has it impacted your career, and how has the channel grown?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I think the story of the FOOBAR channel was a life changing moment for me in general. It was 2016/2017 and I was working on a company that was building a type of Netflix for cartoons, and we needed to re-architect it. I've always tinkered with technology; I've been developing code since I was six years old, so I love tinkering with code. I didn't have kids, so I had a lot of time to play with things. When we were re-architecting that software, I was already familiar with lambda and serverless. And it was very new. Basically, it's 2016, there's not much out there, so I brainwashed the architect and the boss to use serverless for this project. He said yes. My team was clueless about serverless, nobody knew anything. In Finland, people take a lot of time off; private life is very encouraged. It was very hard to get the whole team in a meeting for three or four hours to explain serverless concepts to them. So what I did is I opened a YouTube channel, and I started growing content.
It started just for me and my team, but then I went to this conference. By that time I had 50 subscribers, which were my team and my mom. But I went to this conference, the serverless conference in London. I was walking around, and one person said, Oh, you're a YouTuber! And I was like, who knows me? Who is this person? It was Danilo Poccia, a developer advocate for serverless. And he knew me, and he said that the whole serverless team was watching your content. I was like, what the hell? People on AWS are watching my code? Everything started to change. When I started, I didn't have a strategy of any kind. I was just putting random videos on YouTube for my team. But then I started with videos more consistently, because I noticed people were watching and I got invited to start doing public speaking. One year later, I was announced an AWS serverless hero, and growth started to happen. The channel started taking off, people started talking about the videos I was making, and I got super excited, so I started posting every week. That led me to my career in AWS.
When I went on maternity leave, I built my own start-up, my own small company for content creation and consultancy. AWS approached me, said they had a Nordic position, and asked me to come and join their team. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but they offered me a dream job. For me this is perfect, because I can reach so many people and I think the cloud is this tool that really democratises infrastructure. I come from a third world country, and for me, always having access to servers and all kinds of infrastructure has been very, very difficult. Also in my university years, a lot of the concepts were very abstract, because universities didn't have computers. So when they offered me this job and the possibility to reach a lot of people, I couldn't say no, it was perfect. So FOOBAR helped me a lot and I'm very appreciative of my community behind that channel. We are almost at 20,000 subscribers.
I have a podcast in Spanish now with a great lady called Isabel. She comes from the operations side, and I'm a developer. So it's so fun to have the podcast with her because we have such different perspectives of the world, but we are the same age and we have long careers, both of us. It's so fun to hear two different opposite views on things. And I think that's life- nobody comes with the same story. So if you are interested in creating content, I will totally recommend you go for it. Don't do it for the views, do it for yourself and do it. Because even if you don't get hundreds of thousands of views, you might get a really cool thing in your career that will help you get the job you want or get to unexpected places. If you asked me five years ago what I would be doing now, I say I will be the architect of a company, because that's what I was achieving. I would never tell you I will be a full time YouTuber.

Q: You were talking about cloud democratising and the impact on third world countries. What does that look like so far and how do you think it's going to change?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I think the more managed services that are on the cloud and the more people talk about these services, in different languages and from different walks of life, the more it will impact people all around the world, not only in rich countries. The cloud opens that door for everybody to pay exactly for what they use, even if they are a small company or start up, to get access to programs. If you have a start-up with a cool idea and some requisites, you get AWS credits. So that opens the door for a lot of people with ideas to put them into practice and make them happen. I've been in the industry for so long and have seen so many people with amazing ideas, but they could not take it anywhere because they didn't have the money and learning things was so hard. Now with all these managed services like Amplify, LightSail, or lambda, you can do so many things so cheap and so quickly, and I think that opens the door for so many people to get into play. Language variety is always super important. I've started to do a lot of content in Spanish, as there are a lot of people doing content in English, but not a lot of content in Spanish, and I want a lot of people to know about the powers of serverless.

Q: What have you seen since you started making this podcast in Spanish and making more Spanish content? Have you seen growth?
Marcia Villalba: Spanish is doing really well, and I think that comes from many places. First, I think podcasts are a place where people need to connect to you. It's not something like a YouTube video where you're showing something very analytical. I think in a podcast you want to build a relationship with your audience. You have some internal shows, so it's more like a radio show. That's how I see it. So when you do it in Spanish, I do it with my sense of humour with my craziness and my co-host is also a very fun girl. So we have a lot of fun. We like talking about technology, but it's so relaxed, and a lot of people are washing the dishes and listening to us or walking their dogs and listening to us. That's the type of connection I like to make in Spanish, because I know a lot of people in tech might know English to the level that I'm talking in my YouTube channel, which usually is quite advanced. When it comes to longer format and more conversational things, I think if English is not your native language, you either get bored, or you don't understand 100%. So I think having something in your native language really helps. The whole Europe team of AWS developer advocates have been really taking up that and creating podcasts in Sherman, in Italian, in Spanish... So we are trying to cover those places where there is no long format, in the native language for a lot of those people.

AWS Developer Advocacy
Q: What does your day-to-day life look like as a developer advocate? Are there other things that you do other than content creation?
Marcia Villalba: As an online developer advocate, I focus on online communities. For example, now I'm working with the organisation of the AWS CDK; they have a conference coming up and they have the CFP open so I'm helping them and things like that, but they don't have a physical location. I like to do a to help the users and organisers as much as I can. I write for Free Code Camp, I work a lot with other organisations as well. So that's part of my job, and then listening to what the community has to say. I spend a lot of time reading Twitter and different blogs or newsletters, to try to get a feel for how the community is, what is interesting for them, and where there are problems. I try to grasp that, either to create content about the topic or to send it to product teams and say that people are complaining about this and they need to do something about it. So that's also part of my job. I also help internally in AWS, for other content creators that want to learn some skills that I have. So there are a lot of things to do. This year one of my top goals is to say no more, because last year I was almost dying because there are so many opportunities and you want to take them all! So those are the things I do, but content creation takes up most of my time.

Q: I think learning to say no more often is something that everyone struggles with. Do you have any advice for that?
Marcia Villalba: I've been really trying to think a lot about what I'm doing, and I think when your management is aligned to that then that helps a lot. Say no to focus on the important things. Try to understand where you want to put value in; for me it's the online communities and the content that I create online. When things come up outside of that space, I have a choice to make; okay, they've invited me to this conference to speak. And if this is something that will negatively impact my long-term goals, in most cases it's no. One thing I have learned is it takes less effort to say no when I have someone else in mind. For example, if they might need me to speak at the talk, I try to forward them to another woman. That way maybe somebody else gets their opportunity to speak, or maybe I can forward it to another person that has a lot of potential but not a lot of opportunities. So that makes me feel good, and then I don't feel as bad if I say no. That's good for everybody.

Q: re:Invent 2020 was online. Thinking about the technology side, what changes have you seen come out of re:Invent 2020 that are impactful for serverless?
Marcia Villalba: Those that were around serverless, they were pretty interesting, because they were really showing that lambda and the serverless ecosystem are pretty much here. There was no mind-blowing announcement and I think that's good. They're stable services that have great announcements for customers with issues to solve the issues. But I think lambda and the services around it have become a place that is stable, and it's growing. It's trying to remove all the limitations that we had around it. I remember when I started talking about serverless in 2016. You would talk about what lambda could do, and then you have a slide on what lambda could not do. And that slide was full of bullet points. Nowadays, I think the only thing that lambda cannot do, and I think I hope it never does, is run for more than 15 minutes. But even that increased from the original amount of time that lambda could run.
So now you can do crazy amounts of things with lambda. In re:Invent, that was proven. All the limitations were removed from memory capabilities, the extensions, the container base. So many announcements came that maybe didn't hit all the customers, because customers in general are very satisfied with lambda. There were some customers that weren't able to jump onto the lambda train because they had all their operations and all their structure organised around container deployment. But now we can allow them to jump onto the train with us. It's the same with machine learning. They needed a bigger capacity, external storage, or more memory. Now we can give you that. We give you the connection to the file system, we give you 10 GB of memory, we give you container deployment. So now you can run machine learning things in lambda functions. I think that that's something I was very happy to see during re:Invent; that lambda is a mature service now. It's just announcing improvement, but nothing that is mind blowing. And I think that's good for a service. That's what we want.

Ryan Jones: "I've been reading a book called Ahead in the Cloud, by Steven Orban, who's at AWS in the enterprise strategists. It's a very good book with a lot of insight around cloud migrations, and I'm thinking about it from the enterprise serverless migration lens."

Q: Steven Orban talks about how sometimes issues will get pushed by service providers and people in the community when new technologies are coming. How often do you come across something like that?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I think a lot of these things happen for misinformation. I think serverless has changed so much that it is hard for people who don't really use it, or who used it maybe two years ago. But it is what it is. Everything comes from customer feedback. So if we hear a lot that people have a problem, we will do whatever it takes to fix it, if that's the main problem that the platform has. That's one of the nice things about working in this organisation; everybody within the organisation has power to request new features and share feedback that customers are complaining about something or saying that they need something. That's why new features come every day, because the features come from customers. One thing might be broken today, but in two months it will be fixed.

Marcia Villalba: "I remember when I was developing outside AWS before step functions came, and we built this whole structure on how to orchestrate lambda functions. Then in the middle of the process, step functions were born, and we had to throw 50% of the code we spent five months working on. And that's something you need to learn to live with."

Q: How does AWS foster that type of culture, where everyone feels empowered?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I think there's two different things. First, there is a process to submit a customer's request for new features into services inside AWS. We can do that, and it will arrive at the right place. So you don't need to know everyone. There is also a process for if you have a crazy idea, on how to take it into action. I have never gone through that path, but a lot of the services that we have today were born from someone having great ideas. So there is a process for that as well. It's a company that really loves innovation and embraces it.

Q: More companies are starting to incorporate some level of software. Have you seen that as well on your own?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I've been in software all my life. So I've never worked in any company that didn't have software. I think nowadays, and even more after this global pandemic, even companies that were not interested in software, they need to find a way to do ecommerce or and have a social media presence. So software is everywhere, for selling your product or managing it in a more efficient way. That technology is becoming something that everybody needs to have. It's like a human resource department or IT department. Some organisations like Facebook are purely technology companies, and other organisations have it as a very strong support, like Walmart or other supermarkets that are selling online a lot as well. Everybody needs technology for working nowadays. That won't change in the future. I think it will grow even stronger.

Q: When I am thinking about the makeup of a company and having people that are on the team that understand the IT side, there's been a progression of what that IT staff looks like. How have you seen IT teams change at AWS?
Marcia Villalba: I think it's people doing smarter things and things that computers cannot do. For example, for databases, making a good DynamoDB table design is super hard. So there is still space for database administrators. They might not need to know how to migrate from one database provider to another, keep the load and make sure it doesn't break and fall. But they might need to learn how to handle Dynamo or whatever new cool databases are out there. It's the same for operations. I don't think serverless means no operations- it means different operations. Everybody in the IT industry needs to learn new things. And I think that's something that happens to developers, operations, databases, everybody. You need to learn new skills. But that doesn't mean that you cannot do the core of what you learn.
But I think it comes down to many things and one of those is having an organisation that enables learning, so you don't need to do it in your personal time. And think that's something very broken from the IT industries. You should do all those things in your work time. And if you want you can do it as a hobby, I'm not arguing about people's hobbies. But I think it should not be considered as something you need to have in order to progress in your career. If an organisation decides to transition from old school databases to Dynamo, they need to have those education systems in place, because that's the way to retain employers, employees, and also to make everybody happy and feel welcome in your organisation. Every employee should be okay with learning new things and getting out of their comfort zone. And I think universities need to be better at teaching people how to learn, instead of teaching people concepts, because the future is about learning things, and things change all the time.
If you have a blog or a YouTube channel, and you learn in public, you kill two birds in one stone. You learn, and you need to learn in a way that is consistent, because you need to teach it to someone else. At the same time you build your brand to get better recognition in your job or find better job opportunities. So we can go full circle here. If you have a great thing that showcases a lot of your learning, it's a great way to get hired in a company that maybe enables you to do that in the work time. At the end of the day having an internal person that can do public speaking and culture about their love for technology is always great.

Q: When it comes to the future, what are we seeing for you? How are things going to change for the serverless?
Marcia Villalba: That's so hard. At least for this year for me, I want to focus a lot on my Spanish side. I started a new YouTube channel in Spanish because I was publishing mixed content in my FOOBAR channel, but it doesn't make sense for my audience from everywhere else. So now I have created a Spanish channel, and I want to start putting effort in there. I will continue rolling that in with my podcast. I want to start creating new communities- not forgetting my FOOBAR people, they will still get a couple of videos a week, but I want to start also helping people from the Spanish language get into AWS and start looking at serverless and thinking about the cloud as a friendly place.

Q: How can people get in touch with you, and do you have anything that you want to promote?
Marcia Villalba: Well, I think the best way to find me is on Twitter @mavi888uy. You can find that and all the other links to my YouTube channel and my podcasts or whatever you're interested in. I have a message on Twitter. So I'm always happy to chat with people. And if you have not seen my channel, go and take a look. There are over 300 videos on serverless, and I have many more coming.

Ryan Jones: Thanks again for joining me on the podcast Marcia. To those listening, this has been the Talking Serverless podcast with Ryan Jones. If you like our show and want to learn more, check out and leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify or Google podcasts. Join us next time as we sit down with another fantastic guest.

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