At work we use a chat application which added the ability to record and upload videos during the pandemic. People in leadership positions at my company love posting video announcements and updates instead of the more traditional text messages. Video messages allow the individual to be better seen across an organization (especially one where many employees are remote or in different offices), and gives them a chance to show more nuance and emotion than might be communicated over text. People in leadership positions also love posting video messages because they can easily record them in a few minutes, instead of spending the time to craft a well-written concise message that can be digested in seconds versus requiring everyone to spend 5 minutes watching a rambly video just to get 10 seconds of useful information. There are ways to make these video messages better for those consuming them (scripting them in advance, automated text transcripts, playing them at a faster speed, using them to augment a text message instead of replacing one), but sometimes it feels like many of these announcement videos are a demented kind of asynchronous meeting with no agenda, where everyone’s invited and only one person gets to talk.

The only thing worse than a rambly video announcement from someone who loves hearing themselves talk is a video announcement from someone who is clearly being forced to record one. This has become a scourge at my work, and I bet we’re not unique in this respect. An engineer’s manager will tell them that they should post a video about what they’re working on to get higher visibility across the company. The result will be a 3-4 minute video of an engineer, head barely in frame in a dimly lit room with a blank white wall behind them, in a full flop sweat dead-eyed reading off of a google doc into their MacBook webcam.

I think I understand why this is happening. I think a lot of this is to combat announcement fatigue at work. Every day we are inundated with new announcements that may or may not impact us: updates about insurance and benefits, IT telling us whether or not we can upgrade to the latest OS, company reorgs, process changes, invitations to all hands meetings, invitations to fill out surveys about the all hands meetings, actual technical information from engineers that may or may not impact us directly, etc. Following all of them can be a full time job, and as a result many people ignore most of these messages entirely. But in a long stream of text announcement messages in a channel a video announcement pops visually. For one, it simply takes up a lot of space on the screen. It also looks far more inviting than an intimidating wall of text, and it usually requires you to actively interact to get any information whatsoever (as opposed to being able to quickly skim text).

This last spring I found myself in a situation where I needed to make a series of announcements at work, and I wanted to do something different. I was encouraged to post videos to bring more attention to them, but as I’ve said before, if you have to make a status update video for work and can’t just do a text message instead, you should put in the effort to make the video relatively short and worth people’s time to watch.

tl;dr I made some silly videos using AI at work, scroll down and watch them!

Interview With The Vampire

First, a bit of context. I’ve been at my job for over 7 years, which in tech can feel like several mortal lifetimes. For better or worse my most enduring legacy at this company will be that of “The Redux Guy” (you do not need to know anything about Redux to follow this post). When I joined in 2016, I jumped right into leading the migration of our existing data layer to Redux to support a broader React migration, and I’ve spent the majority of my time since maintaining these systems, adding functionality, and working to improve the developer experience through both education and tooling. We were a much smaller company in 2016, and back then I devoted a lot of time both one on one and in small groups to teaching people Redux and the internal patterns and nuances of our data layer. I should note that there have been many developers other than me who have made significant contributions in this space, but ultimately it’s my small team that owns this part of our codebase and I’m the resident domain expert on the team.

My wife and I had our first child in May, and my work provides a very generous 6 month parental leave, which I used all at once after our child was born. In the months leading up to that, I thought a lot about what I should be doing to prepare for such a long absence. I cleaned up some creaky parts of the codebase that I owned and upgraded older packages so that everything would run smoothly in my time off, and I’m happy to discover now that I’ve returned that everything did run mostly smoothly!

I also continue to spend a lot of time helping others work with Redux and our associated infrastructure. At the start of our data migration, I wrote a lot of really good documentation, and I’m frequently helping people in code reviews or in our various help channels at work on anything Redux or Redux adjacent. But over the years our documentation had gotten a little stale and scattered across different internal document systems, and I wouldn’t be around for 6 months to help out with individual questions. Plus, we’d grown a ton as a company over the years, and more people were joining all the time who perhaps had little experience with Redux, and certainly no experience with our internal patterns. My approach to helping people individually or in smaller groups wasn’t scaling, and something needed to change. I decided that my impending parental leave was the perfect nudge for me to devote some time to providing comprehensive educational materials that could be a resource to all of our engineers both now and in the future.

I’ve found it really helps for a project to have a name, even if it’s made up of many tangential parts. I decided to call this effort the Redux Speaker Series: a series of video presentations covering the basics of Redux and how we use it internally, with deeper dives into specific topics. These video presentations would be live zoom meetings that anyone could attend and ask questions, and they would also be recorded for people to watch later and to use as an ongoing resource. Accompanying these videos would be updated documentation on the topics, all stored in a central location. While I planned to give a few of these presentations myself, I also wanted to solicit guest speakers from across the company to talk about topics that they had expertise in.

Risky Business

This was in March of last year, which was a pretty rough time at work. We were over a year into the very disruptive and at times rocky process of being acquired by a much larger company, many significant contributors to our culture and codebase had left, and we were fresh off a rough round of company wide layoffs in January. Morale was pretty dire, overall engagement was low, and those of us remaining were mostly sticking to our individual work to provide value to our team instead of helping out with more cross-team efforts and discussions. It was not a time where people were attending optional meetings or doing work that wasn’t strictly assigned to them.

This was not an ideal situation to kick off the Redux Speaker Series. For the effort and time put into this project to be worthwhile, I would need people to attend these presentations and take advantage of the documentation, as well as get other engineers to volunteer their time to present topics for the series.

I decided that I would give the first three presentations of the series, so that I could set the stage and expectations around the presentations and establish a baseline level of quality. I also decided to make these presentations weekly, as I have seen many a biweekly or monthly meeting quickly flounder and die (also my baby was due in 2 months, and I had at least 10 topics I wanted to have presentations on). In order to prevent a skipped week from a speaker needing to cancel at the last minute (very common for these volunteer efforts), I set aside a few “ringer” related topics from people who had already recently given presentations so they’d be able to jump in on short notice. Frontloading my presentations also meant that I’d be able to ramp down my time investment and focus more on coordination and outreach as our baby got closer to arriving and my life got more hectic.

I needed to announce the Redux Speaker Series in a way that broke through this tough environment, got people’s attention, and got them excited (which is challenging because honestly Redux as a topic can be very academic and dry). We had a biweekly Front-End Sync meeting where announcements like this were usually made, but that meeting had lately only had a dozen or so attendees out of the 200 or so Front-Ends at the company. I also had a conflict and wouldn’t be able to attend the next FE Sync, so I decided to make an announcement video and schedule a post in our FE channel to go out a few minutes before the meeting, when FEs would be most likely to see it.

American Made

I’d had some fun making videos for work a couple years ago, and I wanted to continue in that vein. I tried to think of who in the world is the best at promoting something in an exciting way that I could mimic. A person immediately came to mind, someone who believes that their sole purpose on this earth is to entertain and who is willing to go to great lengths to do so. I didn’t have the same talents or resources as this person, but AI was really blowing up at this time, and on my commute home the night before the FE sync inspiration struck. I spent the evening making a video and scheduled it to post the next morning.

(Videos have been lightly edited to redact internal information and some names of coworkers)

I put together this video using iMovie, Audacity to add radio effects to the audio, and one of the better AI voice cloning tools. I won’t say which one because I clearly violated the terms of service by checking a box saying that I owned the rights to the voice I’m cloning. I made the voice clone using only the audio from the original video, and I picked this video because I figured the bad audio quality (from Tom Cruise recording dialogue from the top of a plane!!!) would help mask any AI weirdness around the voice.

While I’m not able to see view metrics on the video, over 50 people reacted to the message with encouraging emoji, a greater turnout than the FE Sync itself. Even more encouraging, the following week 70 people joined my Redux Fundamentals talk on zoom, with more watching the recording afterwards. I cannot stress enough how weird it is to dial into an optional one hour zoom on a Monday morning to learn about Redux fundamentals. I’d clearly struck a nerve and people wanted to learn more about this topic, and the feedback I was receiving on the content of the talk was overwhelmingly positive. With this sort of reception, it was clear to me and my manager that it was worth me investing a significant amount of my time in this speaker series.

For my next presentation I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do an announcement video. If I did another one I was in danger of having to do a new video every week until I went on parental leave. But I think the video really helped boost attendance to the presentations, which were more work than the announcement video anyway. So I decided to scale back a little bit and make a more conventional announcement video where I just talk to my webcam in my home office.

Just kidding, I went all in! I decided to do a misdirect with a different celebrity guest, before of course falling back to Tom Cruise. The AI voice cloning was also a lot better than I’d expected, so I got more adventurous with using it.

In the leadup to this video I’d taken advantage of the positive attention for the Redux Speaker Series and reached out to other engineers to be guest speakers. I was worried no one would sign up, but it turns out if you invent a meeting that lots of people attend, and invite people to talk at that meeting, it’s really good for their career to say yes! A few people even proposed topics and got added to the list. I decided to use the second half of the video to promote the upcoming topics and speakers, to build excitement for what was to come.

Far and Away

I was having a lot of fun being creative and silly with these videos, and sticking to the limitation of trying to shoehorn these technical topics into videos featuring Tom Cruise. My next topic, Redux Persistence, was a particularly dry one and one that I had a lot of mixed feelings about, having worked in this particularly challenging space for years. I decided to branch out a little bit and try to elicit some different emotions, while at the same time grappling with my enduring role at the company. Fortunately, Tom Cruise has incredible range. I also had a different reason to be emotional: my good friend and teammate Anuj had decided to move from San Francisco back to London. He was still working on my team remotely, but I was really going to miss seeing him regularly in the office. If he ever actually leaves the company, I’ll be despondent and utterly inconsolable. I chose to make this video longer, and dedicate a “post-credits” type sequence to him. I was also comfortable making a longer video, as at this point anyone watching one of my announcement videos was mostly doing so for entertainment, since the videos contained no information that wasn’t already in the text of the message. I will note, however, that the videos still had roughly the same useful information density as most of the other announcement videos I come across.

Thanks to my teammates Ken and Sarah for letting me hijack a team happy hour to record footage. They happily agreed to let me film them having fun and laughing in a bar, unaware I was going to edit them into the death montage of Top Gun: Maverick. Also thanks to Anuj, obviously, for everything.

This was also the video where I realized that some actors have voices that lend themselves extremely well to AI cloning. Ed Harris’s AI voice was spot-on, using only audio from the original clip.

All The Right Moves

The Redux Speaker Series presentations continued to have very high attendance, engagement, and positive feedback from my intended audience of FEs. What I didn’t expect was that these announcement videos would break through to other parts of the company. My boss’s boss’s boss (gotta be a better way to say that) stopped me in the hallway to tell me how much he was enjoying them as well as how much he’d been hearing about the speaker series itself. My VP shouted me out during an all hands meeting. I also got in touch with our Engineering Learning Program Manager, who made the Redux Speaker Series videos part of official onboarding for new FE hires at the company. What had started out as something silly I was doing out of some mild corporate boredom and malaise was actually starting to have a noticeable and positive impact on my career. I was more energized and engaged than I’d felt in years! Feeling emboldened, I decided to push myself again and incorporate more original footage for the next video, while having even less relevance to the actual presentation topic. Thanks to my teammates Ken, Daniel, and Sarah for being game and letting me take an hour out of their busy work day to film, everyone on the 30th floor of the office for ignoring us and pretending like we were being normal, and Jeremy Renner for his work as my stunt double.

Top Gun: Maverick

I apologize for this brief aside, but if you’ve made it this far I’m hoping you can handle a quick tangent. I’m an excellent Staff Front-End Engineer. I care a lot about work culture, both in terms of having fun and in creating a welcoming and collaborative space where no one is afraid to ask a question and everyone is able to do their best work. I love thinking about and working on the developer experience, as well as helping others both in formal mentor relationships and in one-off interactions. I also think that I have a knack for FE infrastructure type work (here’s another post I made that better demonstrates some of my thinking in this area). If you work somewhere where you think this sort of nonsense would be appreciated and that I might be a good fit, or you know of such a place, please reach out to me (email, mastodon, linkedIn). My stock grants run out in April.

Mission: Impossible

It turns out that the Mission: Impossible movies are perfectly suited for my needs. They’re full of dramatic monologues, exciting reveals, lengthy exposition scenes, and great action setpieces. One video I made (that I can’t show because I’d have to redact too much of it) used a scene in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise literally presents a slide deck describing the next impossible mission. I also got to use by far the best monologue from the franchise:

Born on the Fourth of July

At this point the Redux Speaker Series was running smoothly. The guest speaker presentations were all excellent, lots of people still tuned in to watch, and I had lined up someone else to facilitate the last few presentations while I was on my rapidly approaching parental leave. I had one last announcement video to make before our baby’s expected due date. In my most ambitious editing effort so far, I introduced the next presentation topic, the impending birth of my child, and promoted a movie release of a franchise that I hold near and dear to my heart. My baby was actually born a week early so I made some last minute edits before my coworker posted this, probably my magnum opus.

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One

I like to think that I’m extremely thoughtful with respect to my career development. I’m a planner by nature. But if I’m being honest, the best moves I’ve made professionally have always been a direct result of me steering by dead reckoning. I didn’t know where I was going with the Redux Speaker Series or these videos when I started, but I followed my heart and my gut, and it ended up being exactly the right thing for me to be doing. I hope that for the rest of my career I continue to pursue environments where I get to work on interesting problems with intelligent, kind, and fun people in a sustainable way.

I’ll leave you with one last video that ended up not being used, as the presentation never ended up happening. I think it features the best AI voice cloning yet, due to the extremely consistent cadences and diction of news anchors. As Tom would say, thank you for watching.