When developer Nathan Kellert began streaming a live feed of his screen as he worked, he had no idea anyone would be interested; after all, he was just coding. However, within 20 minutes, he had 50 people watching him. "I was thinking, 'what are you guys doing?'" Kellert recalls. "'This is the most boring thing ever!'"
Since then, his audiences have ballooned to more than 400 viewers at a time. His followers ask questions, point out potential fixes, or just watch quietly. For Kellert, broadcasting his work has become an essential part of his job. "I’m not sure how I made it through the day before livestreaming," he admits.
Kellert is one of a growing community of developers who either stream their work live, or actively monitor others doing the same. He operates through Watchpeoplecode.com, the brainchild of Alexander Putilin, a former developer at Russian search engine giant Yandex. Putilin started the site after noticing interest in livestreaming coding on Reddit. He launched his own community using the Twitch platform earlier this year, but he was not alone; another venture, Livecoding.tv, announced its own diverse lineup of streamers just a few days later. On both sites, viewers have access to a live feed of their chosen developer’s screen, a comment or chat area to ask questions, and a video of the individual at work.
The range of projects and skill sets on the sites is diverse. One recent stream on Livecoding.tv showcased an eleven-year-old student trying to build his first game in Java. Another, on Putilin’s site, featured a Google developer showing off complex machine learning work. Some programmers are streaming their efforts to write code for the very first time. "You’ve got the smartest guy possible all the way down to this person who has never done any programming before," says Kellert.
Currently, the primary focus of both sites is educational. Beginning developers typically learn through online classes, YouTube tutorials, and textbooks. "Learning to code can be quite dull," says livecoding co-founder Jamie Green. "There’s not much of a social element. We thought this could be a way for people to learn and also be entertained."
Green and co-founder Michael Garbade hope Livecoding.tv eventually will have a constant lineup of quality feeds, so someone wanting to learn more about Python, for example, could visit the site and watch an expert at work any time of the day.
Putilin started Watchpeoplecode.com with the same instructional aims. Currently, he is streaming his effort to build a search engine from scratch, but he is not actually looking to create a product that will compete with Yandex or Google. "I want to demystify search engines, to show people how they work and how they’re organized," he explains. "My primary goal is to create an educational experience for me and for my viewers."
The process of explaining his choices, and answering queries from viewers as he codes, does impact Putilin’s pace, but there are benefits as well. "I code three times slower than normal," he says. "At the same time, it sort of forces me to think more clearly. Sometimes when I get stuck, viewers make helpful suggestions or fix bugs, so in certain ways it can be fast."
Not everyone who streams has the same experience. The viewers do not always engage for the same reasons, either. Kellert, for example, says a few of his followers have told him they keep his stream running on their screens all day with his audio on mute; they confessed that seeing someone else toil away prevents them from procrastinating. On Livecoding.tv, Green says some developers stream to give back to the coding community and share helpful tips with beginners and intermediates; others enjoy the sense of community – the social aspect of having someone appreciate the work you do.
Green also notes some developers insist they are more productive when they stream. Kellert says this is the case with his work; often, when he starts to tire and considers taking a break, one of his viewers will prompt him with a question, and the simple process of answering will re-energize him.
There is also a more basic reason for the uptick in Kellert’s productivity, one that could apply to any line of work. "If you knew that 20 people were watching you do your job," he says, "you’d probably do it more efficiently and with less errors."
Gregory Mone is a Boston, MA-based writer and the author of the novel Dangerous Waters.
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