Developers have ‘the greatest reach that humanity has ever seen’: Twilio's Rob Spectre - Brooklyn


Feb. 12, 2015 10:40 am

Developers have ‘the greatest reach that humanity has ever seen’: Twilio’s Rob Spectre

The developer evangelist at a quietly crucial web company is a true believer in the power of software engineers.

Twilio Developer Evangelist Rob Spectre.

(Photo by Brady Dale)

Rob Spectre gives a lot of presentations.

As the leader of Twilio’s developer evangelism team, he has over a dozen talks at the ready at any given time and 23 talks up on his GitHub. “I’m taking a very hard line this year. I’m no longer going to be beat on slides,” he told us last week, when we met up at Toby’s Estate Coffee, near his place in Williamsburg. To that end, he said, he’s been working a lot with Reveal.js to up the ante.

Spectre has been in Brooklyn for the last five years, originally arriving here to work for consumer electronics startup Boxee (it was acquired by Samsung in 2013). He spent about a fifth of his time at Boxee evangelizing the platform to external devs and realized he loved it.

He has since transitioned to making that his full career at Twilio, a company that makes it easy for companies to contact customers using SMS or telephone calls. Some of the web’s heavy hitters rely on Twilio, like Uber and Airbnb. The company now has about 350 people on staff, according to Spectre. He’s been at Twilio for four years.

Everyone on his team is a developer and Spectre deeply believes in the power of programmers to affect change.

“Developers may be the constituency in human history that has the greatest reach that humanity has ever seen,” Spectre said.

We learned about Spectre when he spoke at Hackcon II at Livestream Public. He told us that his company’s approach to hackathons reflects Twilio’s overall evangelism philosophy, which is, he told us, “Creating as many moments as possible where a developer learns how to do something that they didn’t know they could do.”


Here: “How To Build Your Own MMS Enabled Motion Activated Security Camera With Linux, Python and S3.” Did you know you could do that?

Spectre’s team participates in or initiates something like 500 events per year toward that end.

Spectre grew up in Kansas and got into programming thanks to a scholarship he receieved from Hastings College. The scholarship only covered his schooling, so to pay his living expenses, he needed to work. He got a part-time job with a local business that actually had a webhost running out of his basement. Even though he was majoring in the humanities, he taught himself LAMP at work and started building websites for his boss’ customers. That led him into the startup world in 2003, where he has remained ever since.

Now he’s living in Williamsburg, teaching people about Twilio and code in general, as well as running a variety of side projects both online and off. In one way or another they all link back to his tech roots.

Spectre is on the board of youth involvement organization DoSomething, the organization from which Crisis Text Line arose, which we touched on here. DoSomething uses SMS to encourage young people to get involved, but the team behind it realized it could also be a powerful way to deal with young people’s troubles.

Once Crisis Text Line started and began building a pool of data, they had some powerful insights. For example, a lot of young people feel their worst on Sundays, yet phone-based crisis lines are often unstaffed that night. “It just goes to show how dramatically differently we can approach these very serious problems with engineers involved,” he said.

He’s also part of a joke punk band called Adventure Capitalists, which will release an EP soon.

And, oh yeah: The robots that live in his apartment will try to make you laugh if you dial (718) 775-3392.

Brady Dale

Brady Dale is a tech reporter, comedian and storyteller. In July 2015 he joined the New York Observer. Brady was Brooklyn's lead reporter from August 2013 till June 2015. A native of Pittsburg, Kansas, he went to Cornell and worked as a progressive community organizer for over a decade before quitting his job to pursue writing.


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