How do you explain technical ideas? That's a question we really need to answer a lot. Our industry has this endless supply of tricky ideas and novel problems that we need to communicate to people. It's one of those things with an almost endless number of answers. We can communicate with documentation, blog posts, conference talks, unit tests, types. This podcast itself is an answer to the question how do you explain technical stuff? Joining us today on Streaming Audio, we have Mitch Seymour, who's taken a very surprising route to getting across technical concepts. He's been writing what seem to be children's books about a family of otters discovering that they need to create event-based stream processing.
The industry didn't see that answer coming, but people have responded to his books really warmly. It's quite heartwarming to read them and heartwarming to hear how people have reacted to it. It's such a novel approach to this question of how do you teach that? I wanted to get him in and hear about how he went down that road for his career and how his books are made and where he's going next with them. Before we get started, Streaming Audio is brought to you by Confluent Developer. More about that at the end, but for now, I'm your host, Kris Jenkins. This is Streaming Audio. Let's head gently down the stream. Joining us today on Streaming audio is Mitch Seymour. Mitch, how are you doing?
Good. How are you, Kris?
I'm very well, very well. Looking forward to, I see there's some artwork in the background of your camera.
That's kind of a hint as to what we are going to talk about. Right.
I think that's a good hint. Yes, for sure.
Your backstory up until a point sounds good, but ordinary, if I can say that. You were an engineer at MailChimp. You've been an engineer for a long time, and you were writing a book for O'Reilly called Mastering Kafka Streams in ksqlDB.
That's correct, yes.
Then you get into a completely different kind of publishing. Tell us the story. How did you go from the standard shape of O'Reilly book into what you're doing these days?
Yeah, so I'd spent about a year working on my O'Reilly book, and that was the first book I ever wrote. That was sort of a great learning experience for me. After a year, I had finally finished it and I gave it a copy of my book to my daughter to pose for with a picture. I realized that at that time, all of this time I had spent writing this book, I really couldn't explain to my daughter what had captured my interest, which was Kafka. I felt like I needed sort of a new way to explain this technology for complete beginners. Because we had been reading children's books ever since she was a little kid, I just kind of had this idea that maybe I could do something in that form to describe Kafka.
How old is she at this stage?
She was two years old at the time.
Okay. I get the realization that she's probably not going to read your O'Reilly book. Certainly, I think we all get the thing we're trying to explain what we do to our relatives is almost impossible.
You actually took the leap and how can I translate this for a two-year-old?
That led to your first book, it's called Gently Down the Stream.
Yep, that's correct.
Tell us what Gently Down the Stream is for those that haven't read it yet.
Yeah, Gently Down the Stream is about a family of otters that figure out that they need a new way to communicate once too many otters move into the forest. Previously they had used a sort of more direct form of point to point communication, and then they basically needed a way to scale that out. The book is about them sort of discovering how to do that and also teaching about Kafka along the way.
It's like this gorgeous metaphor for how streaming applications work with communicating otters.
I imagine quite a few people in the Kafka community have read it and those that haven't really, really should check the show notes and get a link, because it's kind of got that AA Milne Winnie the Pooh quality to it.
While at the same time explaining some quite technical concepts in a reasonably accessible manner. Right?
Winnie the Pooh is definitely a major inspiration for me. Yeah, I wanted to, I don't know, present something as cozy and as warm for beginners, but just kind of do it with a new topic, and Kafka was that topic.
I will forgive the pun, of course.
Okay. Well, I want to go through the whole process of how this works, but let's start with the toughest audience test of all. How did your two-year-old take this book?
She really liked the pictures. Yeah.
I will say she probably was even a little too young for the text at this point when she was two. As a three-year-old now she's starting to get it a little more, but she was a big fan of the pictures for sure.
She's probably going to reach adulthood and wonder why all children weren't read this in their childhood. Right?
Right. Yeah, probably so.
What was the process of development mean? Did you originally decide, I'm just going to do this as a fun thing for my daughter's sake, and did it grow from there?
That was pretty much the starting point. Yes. What I did was I started with writing the story and my process and the books that followed, it's pretty similar to this too. I take about a month to write the story and it's not heads down of writing for an entire month. It's more about letting ideas come to you, being in the head space of this is what you want to write about and jotting down notes and then at some point just creating a story about it. Yeah, I took a month to do the story and then I took another three months to actually do the illustrations because I'm a very slow illustrator. That definitely takes me the longest time. Yeah.
What is your background in? Going back to high school, college is your background in the arts or in the sciences?
I actually studied psychology.
Yeah. I took a lot of art classes in college as well. I married an artist who's much better than I am. Art is a very big part of my life.
I apologize to the listeners for making the false dichotomy between science and art, but I wanted to get the rough shape of where you're coming from. Psychology and computing back into teaching in a way.
Yes. Yeah. Exactly.
The way people think. This starts to tie up. You say this is your process, a similar process a month to pull together the ideas, and three months to write author and illustrate. How many books have you done now?
I've done three books now. I've done Gently Down the Stream, and then I did Secret Colors, which was a collaboration with Martin Kleppmann from Designing Data Intensive Applications. Then I did a Walk to the Cloud, which is an extension of Gently Down the Stream.
The one you did with Martin Kleppmann, so that was about something about cryptography. Right?
Yes. That's a gentle introduction to cryptography. It really talks about something called Diffie–Hellman Key Exchange.
Yeah. That idea came, I had basically been talking with Martin. The first time I met Martin was actually at Kafka Summit. I was leaving one of the talks and I just saw a huge line of people waiting in line basically, to get their book signed. I was like, who is this person? I later come to realize it's Martin Kleppmann. I stood in line, I got my book signed, just said a quick hello. I really started to think, wow, I would love to be in a position one day where I can have that sort of impact on people as well.
After I started my O'Reilly book, I was actually feeling a little stressed out during the writing process because there were a lot of deadlines I had to meet. It was just a pretty stressful process writing a book. I actually reached out to Martin Kleppmann at that point and asked if he could give me advice on writing a book and see how he was doing. Super awesome guy. He just responded basically immediately within a day or so and made me feel good about writing the book. He said he actually took a lot longer to write his book than he anticipated, and to not worry so much about the deadlines and stuff and just make sure what you're producing is really good. I started feeling better about the O'Reilly book, and I'm actually really happy with what I produced.
After I created Gently Down the Stream, I once again thought of Martin, who's just sort of an inspiration for me. I reached out and I said, "Hey, would you ever be willing to write a children's book?" He had seen Gently Down the Stream, somebody had shared it with him and he was pretty enthusiastic about partnering and he brought the idea of Diffie–Hellman Key Exchange. That's what we did.
How did you collaborate with him? Because I'm assuming you've now got one Children's book, it's not quite fair to call it Children's Book, but you've got one-
Gentle introduction book, let's call it.
Presumably Martin's never done anything like that before.
Right. Yeah, I don't think he had.
Generally, if you assume that technical people haven't written a children's book, you get a pretty high hit rate.
I had just asked him if he had any ideas and he took probably a couple of weeks to think about an idea and then came back with an introduction to cryptography, which I thought was a great idea. He had also sort of presented the outline of a story to me, and I thought it was great, as you would expect with Martin. It was just amazing. Just what he produces was great. I didn't have to do a lot of work, but where I came in was, I call it Winnie the Pooh-ifying the material. Yeah, I sort of gave it that polish and introduced some additional elements to give it that sort of same sort of feel to it. Then I went into that three month illustration mode where basically heads down for a lot of that time just illustrating and then showing Martin what I was doing. He was super supportive of the entire time. We finally published that.
Just back and forth on the right way to illustrate and explain it.
Awesome. Take me through the drawing part, because my drawing experience basically extends to trying sketching out things for slides, for talks. This is a whole different style of drawing.
I think so, yeah. The style of drawing I do is actually, I think even easy for beginners to pick up. If you look at some of my inspirations like E. H. Shepherd or Beatrix Potter from the Peter Rabbit series, or more recently Andrew Lobell from the Frog and Toad series, you see a lot of imperfections in the actual line work. It has a very sort of sketchy feel, it's very forgiving. Then you add the watercolor and the paint. For whatever reason that formula seems to work really well. But there's not a lot of pressure to get every single line just perfect. In fact, sometimes, in my opinion, it looks more beautiful if it is sort of messy.
Yeah. Sometimes that produces an organic effect.
Right, exactly. My wife, I mentioned she's an artist, she does a lot of photorealistic stuff. That would be very difficult for me. I can't make stuff look photorealistic, but I can sketch out something loosely and give something a basic form. That's kind of what I did with this series.
Makes me think a bit of Randall Monroe and how much expression he can get out of a few stick figures.
Which is really the low technical end of drawing.
It's amazing how much you can communicate with so very little. I feel that's probably a bigger theme in my books too. Whereas with the O'Reilly book, it's very much you have a minimum word count you need to hit, which I always thought was odd. It's like, hey, you have to use at least this number of words to explain something. Whereas I tackle things more like a haiku, trying to strip it down to its basic elements and communicate something that's very impactful using as little as you can. In both the story and the illustration work.
Yeah, I guess that's a lot. It's true for writing presentations. It's also true for writing novels. When you're a beginner, you think that 40 minutes or 80,000 words, it's hugely long. Once you get used to it, you think it's way too short and you spend most of your time condensing.
Exactly. Yeah. It even translates to software itself. You don't want to necessarily have something super verbose that you're writing when you're coding or something like that. If you can simplify it into something impactful and short, and I think you end up with something better in the long term.
Yeah. That's why we always enjoy deleting code more than we enjoy writing it sometimes.
Exactly. Yeah. That's probably why technology like KSQL are so popular is you can do so much with so very little. That was a big factor in why I was interested in KSQL from the beginning is just that kind of power that you have.
Yeah. That kind of brevity.
With the same level of expression. Staying on the book just for a bit more, well, staying on that particular aspect of the book for a bit more I should say but having said that about the illustrations you do, I'm pretty sure in the latest book you've got your wife credited as a co-illustrator.
How did that come about?
Yeah, so I naturally want to involve my wife and anything, well, pretty much everything, but this was another artistic endeavor and she's just an artist of the next level. I was like, I would love to have your help on this book. She, by this point, had realized that maybe me drawing otters all the time wasn't so crazy. She helped me figure out some scenes. There are a few pages in the book that she did herself. It's a pretty fun partnership.
I'm not sure how I feel collaborating artistically with my wife, well working with my wife generally, I don't know. You found it a positive experience.
It's definitely hit or miss. Yeah. For us it was mostly a hit. We gelled pretty together on this.
Okay. Tell me about the audience, because it started out as your daughter. What point did you decide you were going to publish it and how'd the reaction go?
Yeah, so I actually decided I was going to publish it before I shared it with the world. In the first version of Gently Down the Stream on the second or third page you see the publishing company. Yeah, I decided early on I wanted to do that because it was more of a promise to myself that, hey, I felt like it was good for my mental health to go through this exercise. It actually ended up relaxing me to create this book. I was like, I just want to create a dedicated space for me to be creative and for me to just be free. Because even though I'd been working with O'Reilly and I love O'Reilly, I don't have that same level of freedom. I really couldn't even pick my cover animal for O'Reilly, which I thought was a little odd. I get why they do that.
Oh, I always thought you were allowed to choose your own mascot.
Yeah, they choose for you. I had actually been pushing for otters on the Kafka Streams and KSQL DB book since the beginning because I thought, I just pictured in my mind the typical picture of a mom Otter and a baby Otter and that would represent the pair of Kafka streams in KSQL.
Then, yeah, they gave me a fish, which was fine. Yeah, my publishing company. I decided to actually publish Gently Down the Stream because I wanted to actually just create this dedicated space for me to do this and to continue doing it. In terms of the audience though, this is something else I've been learning as I've been going on. I initially didn't do a great job of capturing who I wanted the audience to be. It was just mostly my daughter and maybe children. After I published Gently Down the Stream, I just started getting an overwhelming number of positive responses. A lot of them were from adults saying that they actually got something out of this. This opened the door to Kafka for people who had heard about it and who were adults, but who just for some reason hadn't been able to learn about it yet.
Yeah. Was that mostly technical people who just hadn't got it? Or do you get business folks?
It's a very good mixture. Actually it's hard to pinpoint the audience because literally people from all different backgrounds, education levels, experience levels, have really found something in this book.
I've sort of redefined the audience that I create for instead of children, it's beginners of all ages.
Right. Yeah. That leads into the whole, what's the word? What's the word for thinking about how we teach things? It'll come to me. Pedagogy? Oh no, I can't remember. Anyway, there is a word for it and it's like, yeah, as you refine your sense of who your audience is, you start thinking in different ways about how you're going to explain things. This is almost like you've lucked on a new kind of way of explaining things to people.
Yeah. Did that reaction influence the way you structured the subsequent two books?
I think it did. I think because the reaction was so positive from the first book, what I've been trying to do with the subsequent books was introduce something new, but also try to really honor what I built in gently down the stream. Yeah, a lot of it is me just trying to, I don't know, continue to build on Gently down the Stream I would say, but also introduce new elements. A Walk to the Cloud, I decided to introduce an audio element in the online version of the book and just to maybe take people a little deeper into this story and actually got a lot of suggestions to do that from gently down the stream.
My audience is definitely informing how I evolved this formula.
It's become more of a multisensory experience.
How did you do the music? Cause is it music and sound effect?
It is, yeah. Another artist had actually done the music, and I'm actually drawing a blank right now. I actually just found this beautiful piano piece and decided to hook it into the slides. The flip books themselves online or basically just a slide framework called Reveal JS.
Oh, okay. Yeah.
That I've totally repurposed for children's books. Then yeah, I just sort of lace the audio. You can choose different paths with reveal js, different slide paths. So if somebody chooses the audio option, they go through the audio version of the story.
Okay. Does it let you sync up the different bits of audio to particular slides then effectively?
You can. I have experimented with that and that's definitely going to be part of a future book. What you see in A Walk to the Cloud is just sort of dipping my toe into the formula and then we'll build on that in the subsequent book.
Yeah, I can see your future publishing house having teams of illustrators and a musician and a studio.
As you gradually get there. What is the next plan? Because you're three in, is there a fourth book planned?
I have ideas for a fourth book. I have one that I really want to do and then I've had a few people reach out asking for me to collaborate. To be honest, I'm still figuring it out. There will definitely be a fourth book, but what it is TBD. I've had people from different cloud providers reach out asking me to write about certain offerings that they have. I've had people in the machine learning world reach out asking me to help them with books. Then, I have my own ideas that I might just want to pursue myself.
When you say to help them with their books, because I know you've set this up now as a publishing house.
Is the idea that you'll do a mixture of your own books and helping other people to write their story in the same style?
Yeah, that's exactly the idea. One idea I've been playing with is sort of a team building model where the people closest to the technology, the ones working on it, either on an open source project or even at a company, they're in the best position to describe what it is and introduce it to the world. I would love to give people the ability to do sort of this team building exercise where they come together, they write about a technology they want to present to the world, they build up the story, and then they loop in my company to Winnie the Pooh-ify it or for the illustration work and then the actual publication work. That's definitely a model I want to pursue. In future books you'll probably not always see my name on it, but I'll be at behind the company for sure.
Behind the scenes as the publishing mogul that you're destined to be.
I hope so. Yeah, that'd be great.
Do you think you'll ever go back to writing a straight technical O'Reilly style book?
I've been offered to do something like that. It's not a high priority for me. I think I would need a few years between now and when I would want to take on something like that. It's a bucket list item for sure. I really enjoyed it. I will also say it also took a lot out of me because the way I work is I never want to take time away from my kids for my side projects. So when I worked on the O'Reilly book, it was only after they went to bed. Really, from 9:00 PM to midnight or sometimes to 1:00 AM each night that was my writing time. I never sacrificed time with my kids. Also that can weigh on you.
You must have sacrificed sleep then.
I did. I would much rather sacrifice sleep for sure.
Not sustainable, but I can understand the decision.
Yes, exactly. Yeah.
Cool. If people want to read your books is it available physically or is the best place to get it online, would you say?
It's kind of a mixed bag, which I also hope to improve with my publishing company. Most of the books are available, actually all of the books are available online in e-book format. The last two books also have physical copies available. If you want to read the book with Martin Kleppmann and myself, that's called Secret Colors. You can get a paperback or a hardback or ebook. With A Walk to the Cloud, you have all the same options, but you also have the free animated digital version. Then with Gently Down the Stream, you have the e-book and you have just the online digital version as well, the animated version.
Why no physical book?
Yeah, that's a great question. This is more about a learning experience for me, but when I did the original artwork for Gently Down the Stream, I did not format it in a way that was optimal for distributing physically. In order to get to that point, I would need to revisit a lot of that artwork and I may do that, but that's why it's not available physically right now.
Do you mean the drawings were too small to photograph properly for publishing or what?
They're not too small. They used a different color profile than I needed. When you actually translate the color profile I used to a physical format the colors don't do a good job of keeping the original form. It's too grayed out and I could publish that, but it doesn't feel like it's representing me at this point. I would want to revisit the artwork and then yeah, the resolution is an issue and that, that's pretty much it. I think
It's nice to think there's a learning curve going on behind the scenes for you as well with the technical part, the music, the illustration.
Finding the audiences evolving as you go.
I'm totally comfortable with starting something I don't really know what to do with. I'm okay with being the beginner myself and I'm super happy with gently down the stream, but because of how I did the artwork, we won't have a physical copy for maybe a while.
Now, I did have a survey at the end of Gently Down the stream and around 5,000 people said they would want a physical copy. I think that's pushed me in the direction to do it sooner rather than later.
I can see that being very popular at trade shows as well.
Yeah, you see you
Having a stand where you sign away these books.
Right. That would be my dream. Yes.
Cool. That's probably where we'll first meet in person.
Yeah, that would be great. That would bring me back full circle to the Martin Kleppmann sort of inspiration.
Totally would, yeah. It's a very roundabout way to get where your heroes are guiding you.
Awesome. Mitch, thanks very much for joining us.
We will put links to all three of your online versions of the books in the show notes so people can take a look.
All right, sounds great. All right, thank you.
That was Mitch Seymour and I did look the word up, it's pedagogy or pedagogy in the American pronunciation. Pedagogy is the study of how we approach teaching. I think you'll agree, Mitch has a novel and fun answer for our technical world. If you haven't seen his books yet, then have a look in the show notes for the links they are absolutely worth seeing. They're fun browsable, very clear explanations, and they are frankly adorable. If you've enjoyed hearing from Mitch in this episode, please take a second hit the like button and the rating button on your app and all those things. If you have an idea for a story that needs Winnie the Pooh-ifying, love that verb, Winnie the Pooh-ify, then get in touch with Mitch, because I'm sure he wants to hear from more people for his publishing company. If you have a technical story that you'd like to tell in a slightly more typical fashion, then drop me a line and we'll see if we can get you onto a future episode of Streaming Audio.
Until then, remember that Streaming Audio is brought to you by Confluent Developer, which is our site that teaches you everything we know about Apache Kafka and event streaming in general, you'll find courses, tutorials, blog posts, guides and more to make the most out of Kafka. While you are there, you may need to actually get a Kafka cluster up and running. Take a look at Confluent Cloud, our cloud service for Apache Kafka. You can have a cluster up and running in minutes and it will scale to huge enterprise sizes. If you add the code PODCAST100 to your account, you'll get $100 of extra free credit to run with. With that, it remains for me to thank Mitch Seymour for joining us and you for listening. I've been your host, Kris Jenkins, and I will catch you next time.
Could you explain Apache Kafka® in ways that a small child could understand? When Mitch Seymour, author of Mastering Kafka Streams and ksqlDB, wanted a way to communicate the basics of Kafka and event-based stream processing, he decided to author a children’s book on the subject, but it turned into something with a far broader appeal.
Mitch conceived the idea while writing a traditional manuscript for engineers and technicians interested in building stream processing applications. He wished he could explain what he was writing about to his 2-year-old daughter, and contemplated the best way to introduce the concepts in a way anyone could grasp.
Four months later, he had completed the illustration book: Gently Down the Stream: A Gentle Introduction to Apache Kafka. It tells the story of a family of forest-dwelling Otters, who discover that they can use a giant river to communicate with each other. When more Otter families move into the forest, they must learn to adapt their system to handle the increase in activity.
This accessible metaphor for how streaming applications work is accompanied by Mitch’s warm, painterly illustrations.
For his second book, Seymour collaborated with the researcher and software developer Martin Kleppmann, author of Designing Data-Intensive Applications. Kleppmann admired the illustration book and proposed that the next book tackle a gentle introduction to cryptography. Specifically, it would introduce the concepts behind symmetric-key encryption, key exchange protocols, and the Diffie-Hellman algorithm, a method for exchanging secret information over a public channel.
Secret Colors tells the story of a pair of Bunnies preparing to attend a school dance, who eagerly exchange notes on potential dates. They realize they need a way of keeping their messages secret, so they develop a technique that allows them to communicate without any chance of other Bunnies intercepting their messages.
Mitch’s latest illustration book is—A Walk to the Cloud: A Gentle Introduction to Fully Managed Environments. In the episode, Seymour discusses his process of creating the books from concept to completion, the decision to create his own publishing company to distribute these books, and whether a fourth book is on the way. He also discusses the experience of illustrating the books side by side with his wife, shares his insights on how editing is similar to coding, and explains why a concise set of commands is equally desirable in SQL queries and children’s literature.
If there's something you want to know about Apache Kafka, Confluent or event streaming, please send us an email with your question and we'll hope to answer it on the next episode of Ask Confluent.Email Us