Sean C. Davis on the Jamstack philosophy, NextJS, and more

On today's episode, we talk with Sean C. Davis. Sean is a passionate tinkerer and teacher.


Bryan Robinson 0:14

Hello, and welcome back to season three of That's My Jamstack. It's amazing that we've been going this long. I know it's been quite a bit since our last episode, but to jog your memories, That's My Jamstack is the podcast asks that time honored and tested question. What is your jam in the Jamstack? I'm your host, Bryan Robinson and we've got a lot of great guests lined up for this season. So without further ado, let's dive in. On today's episode, we talk with Sean C. Davis. Sean is a passionate tinkerer and teacher. He's currently working as a developer experience engineer at stack bit.

Bryan Robinson 1:04

All right, Shawn. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show and talking with us today.

Sean C. Davis 1:07

Thanks for having me, Brian. Excited to be here.

Bryan Robinson 1:09

Awesome. So first and foremost, tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do for work? And what do you do for fun outside of work

Sean C. Davis 1:15

For for work, I am currently the developer experience engineer for stack bit. I've been in the web development space for about a decade or so the first nine years, were all in agency space building agency freelancing, building websites for folks. And just this last year, took a shift into the product space and spending some time with stack bid. And that's that's been so that's super exciting. That's what I've been doing every day. And I'm sure we'll we'll dig into that a bit. For fun on the side. Well, I feel like I'm the I'm the classic developer in the sense that there's always some, there's always some technical thing that's happening on the side. Right now that thing is, it's it's my personal site I've had, I've had a couple of different blogs that I've maintained over the years. And within the last two years or so I've been trying to focus that content, bringing it all into my personal site. But right now, it's still kind of just like a, it's just a, it's a blog, most of most folks who come there, Googled some problem, they get the solution, and it serves those folks really well. But I'm in this transition of trying to make it more of a learning hub. So that's, it's kind of a side project now. But that's but it's still like it's fun, but it's still I don't know, it's where it could still be in a developer. I'm so like, the the other part of me, I've got two little kids at home and like a lot of folks when the pandemic hits kind of focused a lot of energy and attention into the home. So it's various projects around the house or like like many people I am part of the reason you couldn't find flour at the grocery store because I got really into baking for a while and still doing that a little bit to some like some gardening kind of just fun fun stuff around the house.

Bryan Robinson 3:06

In your in your baking exploits. Are we talking like bread, baking, pastry baking, but what kind of baking

Sean C. Davis 3:13

where I spend most of my time and still doing a little bit today is the classic sourdough loaf. So mostly bread, mostly bread, at least I'm better at the bread. I've done a bit of the Sweet Treats and trying to learn a little bit about the decorating but it's just the presentation isn't my strong suit. So the flavor might be there. I've got a ways to go in the inner desert department.

Bryan Robinson 3:37

Yeah, I've got I've got my own sourdough starter and all that. So I definitely feel I actually, I like a time I can be a hipster about something. And so when my son was born, actually so that was six years ago now. So pre pandemic, my wife my birthday that year, two months after he was born he got me a sourdough starter from King Arthur baking and amazing. I lapsed right because obviously like infant and all that and I baked for a little bit but yeah, then started back up during the pandemic as well. Because who, who doesn't want to do that? We're gonna do Yeah, exactly. You got something to focus on. Anyway, I actually love your site. I'm sure that when we do shout outs at the end, we'll talk about that Sean C. Davis calm but one things that came up on the little repeating thing on your homepage is you're afraid of bears and Bs. Is that Is that a thing? Or is that just a funny thing?

Sean C. Davis 4:21

Oh, yeah, it's a it's a funny thing. I mean, I I I love both of them, but also am terrified of both that I do. I do. I guess I didn't mention this in the fun thing. I really enjoy hiking and camping. haven't done much camping since having little kids. We're gonna eventually get them out there. But we do a fair amount of hiking. And so yeah, I've had a number of run ins with both bears and bees. And it's terrifying every time but I also very much appreciate and respect them for what they do for us. Yes.

Bryan Robinson 4:54

All right. So let's talk a little bit about the Jamstack. So what was your entry point into this space? It seems this idea of Jamstack or static sites or whatever it was at the time.

Sean C. Davis 5:03

It that's an interesting question. Because Okay, so if you say, Yeah, entry point into Jamstack, or static sites, if you broke that apart and said, What's your entry point into Jamstack? And what's your entry point into static sites? I have two different answers. So I'll tell you a little bit about the the journey from one to the other. It's, I find it kind of interesting. So it static sites were was the first thing before I knew anything about Jamstack. In fact, before Jamstack was coined, because the gens Jamstack term comes from I think, later in 2015, I believe. So the first agency job, I had built a few sites with middleman, they were originally a PHP shop, and about the time I joined, were transitioning into becoming a Rails shop. And so Ruby was the bread and butter programming language. And there were a few clients that would come on, who didn't want to pay for a CMS or just like they needed something real quick, and it could be static and totally fine. And so we, we were building middleman sites, but deploying, deploying them to like a digital ocean or equivalent, it's still running on a web server still serving up these pages in real time, even though they're just HTML files city like kind of silly, but But there weren't great solid patterns at that time. And about that time, 2013 or so is also when I started building custom content management systems. I built it, I evolved, and I iterated on it. And I think I was looking at this recently, I believe there were four major, different versions that I built over the series, or course of about three or four years in there. And so I'll come back to that. But as I was, so set, this first agency working on middleman, I built a few middleman sites is when I switched to freelancing. And then at this at the last Agency, also, a few middleman sites like middleman kept kept popping up when I was when I was freelancing there. Actually, that's when I built the fourth and final version of that CMS. And at that time, this is probably I think we're talking about 2016, maybe 20. Yeah, I think that seems right 2016. And so the Jamstack term exists, the term headless CMS exists, but I had no idea that these things were things that people were doing. But I had this need, where I had a client who wanted a mobile native application, and a, also a website. And it seemed like a lot of the content was going to overlap. And I was like, Well, I'm building this next version of a CMS, what should it look like? Maybe it should be able to serve both of these. And so I was like, Oh, brilliant, decoupled architecture like this is this is gonna be great. And so that that last CMS I built was API driven. And, and I believe, I believe the website was a middleman site, it, it may have been some other framework, but it was like this Jamstack pattern, but again, still deployed, still using a web server to serve every request. So like missing that, that final piece that that Netlify gives us in the CDN in that instant cache invalidation. So fast forward to this last agency, and we're also a rail shop

Sean C. Davis 8:40

and built a few middleman sites. But what happened was, why I think that the 2017, I believe, the the CTO, late 2017, early 2018, our CTO gets wind of the Jamstack. And so this is pre Jamstack. Conference, still really small kind of tight knit community. And we're like, and everything just kind of aligned because we won this work. For a company where it was going to be building them a new marketing website, it was gonna be a fairly big site. But this company also had a product and an internal product team. And that team had already switched to building that product with React. And so and we had heard a little bit about Jamstack. We heard about Gatsby and we're like, Oh, perfect, perfect time. Gatsby is the cool kid in town. Like we can jump all in on the Jamstack we think we can reduce development costs over time. You know, all the all the classic Jamstack benefits like we can get those and so we took a leap. We jumped all in and so that was like that was the real introduction to Jamstack and I find it I find it kind of funny looking back on it now because I spent all those years with Jamstack like patterns and using tool and middleman was part of all of those and then we're like, oh Jamstack, but also switched to JavaScript based frameworks at the same time, which I think a lot of folks went through that pattern. But I don't know if funny to reflect on.

Bryan Robinson 10:11

Yeah, definitely. And like that that kind of journey is really interesting. Like in that agency world, the fact that, like you were having defined these patterns on your own, and then this community kind of sprang up next to what you were doing, and then look like we can do those things, maybe even slightly better than than kind of where we are now that we see kind of this broader scope, and there are products out there. That's really, really interesting. And it kind of mirrors on my own journey. I was at an agency when I discovered all this as well and never really implemented at the agency that we had a customer we had a full fledge, like custom content management system that like the agency had built, so never got a big we

Sean C. Davis 10:49

did we did too, I don't it was like it was a compelling enough idea to our CTO, that he's like, we're throat, like we're throwing it all out where we're, I, we had a lot of, I mean, you know, there's issues with you, you have to maintain your own software. And it's it's another piece of the stack. And he's like that we were just getting bogged down with this site went down. And there's a bug in this CMS. And I think the crux was, there was one site where we didn't protect the slash admin route, like, should have done that. And we're like, Okay, well, let's, this is a way to never make that mistake. Again. I'm not

Bryan Robinson 11:27

gonna speak for you on this. But my advice to anyone listening out there is if you think you should build a content management system, don't just don't do it.

Sean C. Davis 11:38

Yes, yes. I don't know if I may have written a post about this at one point, or maybe it was just an idea in my head, but it was gonna be ashes, I should see if I can find it. The idea was, here's how you can build a content management system and my journey and exactly why you shouldn't do it. Like it's, it's, I think the the lesson I have baked in there is, it can be a really powerful experience for learning about content schemas and know how to organize pages and components and like structured data. But it's also just not a good idea to do it. Because there's there are how many dozens or hundreds of companies that are focusing on that problem every single day.

Bryan Robinson 12:20

And let's be fair to our past selves, right, like in 2012 2013 weren't as many companies do, and they weren't as fully featured as they are today. I think it's kind of the same thing. A lot of people have probably created their own, like, custom static site generator in the past, like, Oh, I just made a couple include stuff like that. Let's just, oh, but we have them now. From from the middleman and Jekyll times all the way through to all the fancy ones today. Let's fast forward to now. How are you using Jamstack philosophies professionally? And personally? And obviously, you're at stack bet. So probably quite a bit professionally nowadays.

Sean C. Davis 12:54

Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. So Stackbit is, I mean, if the Netlify is the Jamstack tool, but also when you think stack bit like stack bit is, exists, because the Jamstack exists. And it's, I know, the, the Jamstack pattern was really powerful and felt like a great entry point for newer developers. But it, it turned out that it was it was kind of difficult, because it's like you could get started really, really kind of simple to get started. Really difficult to go to the next level, which requires stitching together all of these decoupled services. And so stack bit pops up originally three years ago, as a solution to basically say, well, your start, here's the starting point. And it's Netlify and Jekyll and some markdown files or you know, in some styles, something like that, and it has evolved and now as a full fledge visual editor, what's, what's interesting is, we're in a transition where we're just about to release a new version, or the beta version of a new version. And it's still largely following that pattern. It's a really powerful visual editing experience. But the the Jamstack I feel like Jamstack is kind of in this identity crisis sort of mode or, or maybe not like figuring out where they where they fit. You know, what Jamstack actually means and knowing that the web is going to continue to evolve. And so if you, depending when, when this episode gets released, it's like what we, if we look before this release, and what happens after it right now you go to the website, so pre pre release, and like Jamstack is plastered all over it real big, top of the homepage. And I I'm seeing that this, this language is going to shift a little bit and so we're still very much Jamstack tool. Websites are going to get deployed. They're going to be built with next they're going to be static by default. They're going to be deployed To Netlify using Marco. So it's like still, it's still very much Jamstack pattern. But I think how we, how we talk about that might change a little bit. That's, that's professionally and personally, I mentioned, the, the project I'm spending most of time on now is my personal site, that site is built with eleventy. and deploy to Netlify. And using Mark, just local markdown for content. I, I've been thinking a lot about like, well, what's the future of this? For me, if I really want to make this a hub, and I want to make it a content engine? And I'm thinking well, okay, well, eventually, I'm going to have to go to like a next or something like that. But honestly, I every change that I make, I say, Well, okay, well, can I get this done with eleventy? And I consistently finding that the answer is yes, like it has, there's probably a limit to this some point in my future. But right now, I'm in love with, but eleventy is giving me and so I've kind of have this classic Jamstack pattern happening on the side and loving that

Bryan Robinson 16:08

perfectly. And then I mean, I can go on and on about love. And it is it is kind of where I'm at in the last of two and Zach Leatherman, the creator of 11. D, recently just even showed like gated content with 11, D serverless. And so like the, the line is blurring about what 11 D can and can't do, it used to be pretty solid, like there was a pretty solid point where like 11 D didn't serve you anymore. Little little iffy. Now,

Sean C. Davis 16:30

I think that the big question for me was, oh, there were two. So one is that I'm I built my own kind of component system using nunchucks shortcodes in and so like, you have this smart transformers that make it nice and easy to work with. But it's I mean, it's still a little clunky, I would love to be able to use something like reactors felt and then hydrate them on the fly as needed. And fortunately, we have been homes and slinky, working on that exact problem. So that's really exciting to follow that. And then the second question I had, and second hurdle I thought I was going to run into was authentication, I don't need it now. But my plan is to start to build out some courses, and some of them will be free, and you don't have to track them. And other ones, you know, I feel like well down the road, I'm going to want people to people are gonna want to sign in, they're gonna want to track their progress, maybe some of them are paid. And just this last week, a video came out where Zach was going through the process of showing authentication with 11. D. And now I'm like I, I mean, I feel like the wall I'm going to hit now has less to do with features, and is probably going to have more to do with how many files can we read from the file system? And but I also think that it's getting smarter in terms of incremental builds. And so maybe I don't hit that. Well, I don't know. I'm gonna keep pushing it. We'll see what happens.

Bryan Robinson 17:58

Yeah, that wall becomes smaller and further and smaller and further. Yeah, that's right. That's right. All right. So we've talked about a few technologies. We've talked about a few methodologies. But what would you say currently? Is your jam in the Jamstack? What's your favorite service? Maybe its stack, but are your favorite framework or philosophy? What what makes you love working in the Jamstack?

Sean C. Davis 18:19

Yeah, talk philosophically for a minute, I suppose. Yeah. So what I really loved about the Jamstack, especially in the early days of me discovering it, I'm thinking pre NextJs. JS blowing up. So like 2019. And before? Is that it? To me, it was it's, well, it's still very much this way like you. It's a methodology. It's not a prescription say this all the time. And there's something really powerful in that in that if here's a pattern that we think is a really strong way to build websites that it's it improves the developer experience, and delivers great experience for end users. But you can use whatever tool you think is best for your particular project. And I what I've realized is as the web continues to evolve, is that the there were more kind of guardrails on what Jamstack is than I originally thought, like there, there are more opinions baked in than I originally was, was seeing. However, it's still within within those guardrails and within that pattern, very open and, and not not prescriptive in terms of tooling. And I think what that has led to that even though the community is led by a product in in Netlify, that it's very open in talking about what tools you can use in the space. It's really everyone's really respectful in that space and empowering and so just like the My Favorite I'd love to philosophy itself, the community that came out of that philosophy. It's is like a really, really great thing to be involved in. But I think in terms of tooling, yeah, I can't. I mean, I love stack. But that's why it's why I'm at stack, but I think it's a, it's a great, I do think it's a great entry point into the Jamstack. space. And it it's, it's a such a unique tool that it can serve. The personal blogger, especially someone who isn't super technically savvy, wants to learn a little development. But it can also serve a serve enterprises that have hundreds 1000s of pages, but are storing those in Contentful, or Sanity, some other headless CMS. But really, I keep coming back to eleventy. Especially, there was some news in the last couple of weeks where Rich Harris, the creator of spelt joined, we joined Vercel. Right, so so it's he gets to work on it full time. It's still community driven, but it still also kind of feels a little bit like funding from Vercel. And with that, I, I don't Okay, I don't know if this is entirely accurate. But it's, I think of the group of static site generators or front end frameworks, popular front end frameworks today. The vast majority of them are funded by or have some ulterior motive for where they're there. The people are working for some particular company. And so even though they're open source, they're, I mean, I don't I'm not saying that they've done their communities to services in any way. But eleventy what I love about eleventy is that it is it for now. I mean, today, it's all about the community it is it is very much driven by the community. And it is. And I just I love the way that Zach leads that project. It's, it's really exciting. And similar to what I said about a stack bit and what we just mentioned about eleventy, it's, it's great, because you can get started and know if you know HTML, like you can, you're good, you can build a website, and you can just you can fly. And then you can you can piece together things a little bit at a time, like learn a little bit of nunchucks. Or eventually if we have if when slinky gets to version one, and maybe it's like maybe you just dip your toes into React and, and, but that it also seems like it's going to it's scaling well for a handful of folks. And so it's not like you learn it as an entry level tool. I think that's that's where it was for a while, like a great entry level tool. And then our I don't want to build a serious site. So I'm going to go get a serious framework. It's starting to become a serious framework, and, but without necessarily raising the barrier to entry. And I think that's, that's really cool. So that's, yeah, I just, I feel like I'm just gonna keep talking about stack bid and 11. D all day.

Bryan Robinson 23:07

Yeah, no, that doesn't that that's a great combo. Anyway. Um, I also think it's entering you said, like, you know, rich, rich chains go into Vercel. And, I mean, Zack Letterman's at Netlify. But he's building sites for Netlify. And so I think the interesting thing that's happened there is that he's learned what a company the size of Netlify needs out of some of what it's doing. And that's what's been kind of powering is not that Netlify has been prescribing what he needs. But Zack as a developer using 11. D to build sites for an enterprise level company now knows more about what what 11 D needs for that area. I think that's an interesting bit of information that he's kind of feeding back into the the 11 D framework. That's

Sean C. Davis 23:51

a great point. Absolutely.

Bryan Robinson 23:53

All right, so let's shift gears a little bit. Let's go away from technology and let's let's find out what is your actual jam right now? What's your favorite song or musician? Or what are you listening to day in day out?

Sean C. Davis 24:04

Alright, so I had I had to look this up because I'm I am all over the board in terms of music and I haven't hadn't been listening to as much recently as I have in the past it you know, excluding like, all the all the Disney soundtracks that are on all the time, kids. Okay, so just to tell you how weird my, my taste in music is. I was like, alright, well, what are what are a few of the what are a few of the albums that have been on in the last week or two? Okay, so I've had gone all the way back to the Beatles revolver. I love that one. Okay, then what I'm almost like chronologically What have I done? I put on I put on Jay Z's Black Album. I had. I forget what it's called is Sturgill. Simpson. He released a couple blue grass albums, I think I think they're called cutting grass. Maybe not. Do you know? I do not know. Okay. Blue Grass. And then what did I have? I've had the newer Lord and Taylor Swift albums on as well. So I'm like, all over all over the place all over the

Bryan Robinson 25:18

place. Yeah. That's awesome. That's I mean, it's variety is the spice of life, right? Sure. Yes. Yes. I love that. Now, it's kind of open forum, right? Is there anything that you that you are doing right now you stack that whomever that you want to promote and get out into the Jamstack. Community.

Sean C. Davis 25:34

I mentioned a little bit earlier, this this idea of the the Jamstack identity crisis. And I try to talk about this without sounding disparaging or critical, because I actually think it's a good thing. And I think there's a lot to come in come from being from the community being introspective and figuring out who we are. And so I had, I've had lots of conversations around this topic throughout the year. And in, in doing so what a few of us realized is that the, it? You know, I think we all kind of have a little bit of different opinion of like, well, where's the line? What exactly does Jamstack mean, but maybe it doesn't, maybe it doesn't totally matter. But it's still, like, like we talked about earlier, like, there's still a there's still that the the guardrail is in a sense, like, there, there is an established pattern, in a way to build websites, the web is going to continue to evolve, and it won't necessarily be the cool thing on the cool kid on the block forever. But that, that that community can still exist. So what what a few of us have done is we said, Okay, well, what if we step outside of that? And to say, What if we created a space where folks could talk about all sorts of different patterns and ways to build websites, and Jamstack and all of the tools and variations within within that community is part of that discussion, but it's not the only part of that discussion. So there's also folks who are building rail sites and are choosing rails for a good reason or choosing full stack WordPress for for a good reason. I'm sure there's a good reason in there somewhere. Maybe. And so it's it's goofy, and it's brand new, but it's called good websites club. And it's at you can visit the bare bones website. It's good websites dot club. And so we're there's, it's just a tiny discord community with a little bit of chatter now, but there are there are some grand visions for it. There's someone who's talking about conference and 20, to 23, maybe some, maybe some various meetups throughout there. Personally, I am starting a show that I'm calling the the good websites show, and I don't know exactly what it's gonna be, it's gonna, it'll evolve. But it's, it's gonna start as a live just like a live interview show. And in kind of, we'll talk about, yeah, grab various folks from around different communities and talk about problems they have solved on the web, all kind of in a way to help inform developers or even marketers, content editors just have different different patterns, different ideas that are out there, and kind of kind of help them hone in on what exactly they are. They're going after, and I think we'll see, my prediction is we're gonna see it largely be, there's, there's gonna be this huge fear to draw a Venn diagram, like a lot of overlap with Jamstack in the beginning, and maybe it evolves, I don't really know. But that's, I'm kind of excited to see where that goes, while also being really heavily invested in Jamstack. And seeing how that evolves, because this, this recent announcement of Netlify got got their next series of funding, and they're gonna pump $10 million investing in the Jamstack. And that is really exciting. I cannot wait to see what that means for the community. So that's, I'm working on Yeah, like, websites club, but but, but also really excited for the Jamstack at same time,

Bryan Robinson 29:25

absolutely cool. I'm now a member of the discord as of two months ago. So I'm really excited to see that everyone else listening should go go sign up as well. And then keep an eye out for Shawn doing good websites show in the future as well. So Shawn, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. And we look forward to seeing more amazing stuff you in the future.

Sean C. Davis 29:46

Alright, thanks for having me, Bryan.

Bryan Robinson 29:48

Thanks again to our guest and thanks to everyone out there listening to each new episode. If you enjoy the podcast, be sure to leave a review rating star heart favorite whatever it is in your podcast app of choice. Until next time, keep doing amazing things on the web. And remember, keep things jammy

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