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12 must-listen software engineering podcast episodes

Chris Ward Tech Writer and Blogger, Gregarious Mammal
Person listening to podcast on phone as subway goes by

I listen to hours of developer-focused podcasts each week covering tech, current affairs, board games, and general geekery. I even started my own podcast, which I have a lot of fun making.

Hundreds of developers have written blog posts recommending thousands of different podcast series. There's no shortage of such recommendations for software engineers, so I won't subject you to another one of those lists.

Instead, I'll identify specific podcast episodes that I think nailed a particular topic and were extremely engaging and fascinating from a developer's or technologist's perspective. For some of them, the interview subject or guest was especially interesting, or a discussion cropped up that was really compelling. For some reason, these episodes were very memorable, and that's why I think each one is worth your time.

Whether you listen to them on your way to work or while fervently coding, I hope you find them inspiring, enlightening, and useful.


Learn to explain what you do

Often, the maintainers of smaller open-source projects need help with two key areas: spreading the word and attracting contributors. FLOSS weekly and its hosts, Randal Schwartz and Aaron Newcomb, offer just that, inviting open-source project contributors to discuss what they work on, their stories, and their motivations.

To my mind, the show has an important theme: Effectively communicating what you do is an essential skill for any enterprising developer to learn.

The show has a huge variety of guests, and if you listen to it enough, you notice that some guests are great communicators and others are not. The difference is like night and day, and for me, that general trait of the podcast illustrates how important it is to constantly improve how you explain the things that you do and the code that you work on.I find this recent episode featuring the Kubernetes project a particularly good example to listen to and learn from. Not only do the guests clearly explain a complex project, but they also are adept at sneaking in the topics they want to cover but the hosts weren’t planning on discussing.

Stories behind the products you love

Because it is the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) that produces Software Engineering radio, you can expect quality content aimed at professional developers. Episode 285, with James Cowling from DropBox, is a standout, an ideal way to learn how to build large-scale distributed systems from a company that has a proven track record in doing so.

Another podcast to note is The Changelog. This one appears on a lot of lists of top tech podcasts, and deservedly so. The hosts and guests consistently get deep into software engineering topics and the motivations behind development, but a couple of episodes stand out for me (one of which I’ll mention in a later category). The story of Atom, with Nathan Sobo, really appealed to me, mostly because I am a massive Atom fan, and hearing the origin story of your favorite tools can be an inspiring experience. I encourage you to dig through the show archives; you might find one of your favorite projects covered.

Another really interesting conversation I listened to was in episode 67 of Fragmented, during which the host interviewed Joseph Hill, co-founder of Xamarin, on the origins of the framework, when to use it, and what it’s like when a company such as Microsoft acquires your startup. To me, Xamarin is a super-interesting cross-platform mobile framework. It evolved from a project called Mono, which is a clone of the .NET framework in open source that took a lot of effort to build (this was before .NET was open-sourced by Microsoft).

Digging into databases

In 2015 and 2016, it felt as if people were creating new database systems every month, but then enthusiasm waned and options consolidated.

Different Databases, with David Simons, was recorded during the early part of this upsurge, on .NET Rocks. It's a fantastic, friendly introduction to different database types and major players in each field. A couple of the projects mentioned are now defunct, but others still exist. It’s worth a listen if you want a strong, clear introduction to the wonderful world of databases. The presentation style of the hosts may not suit the tastes of everyone, but most of the time they get out of the way and let their guests speak.

Life’s not all code

Podcasts for developers should cover more than just technical topics. Some of my favorite podcasts (and blog posts) cover topics such as looking after yourself, maintaining mental health, and dealing with people effectively.

I recommend “Job Descriptions vs. Job Realities” on Jonathan Cutrell’s Developer Tea. The episode discusses valuing yourself, the work you do, and not allowing yourself to be abused or overworked. Developer Tea podcasts are supershort, so it's easy to listen to one episode and see if you like it.

If you want to hear more about handling life and building nontechnical skills, there’s an entire podcast covering the subject you can try: Soft Skills, from Dave Smith and Jamison Dance.

Know your history

When some new tool or trend gets a lot of attention and seems innovative, we tend to assume that it's the first instance of a paradigm or technology. Granted, programming arrived relatively late in the scope of human history, but there is a wealth of experienced developers still active today who remember when development was harder, slower, and very different. These experienced developers often have a knowledge of programming history that lets them see that many tools and technologies that seem new to most younger developers have underlying ideas and paradigms that were developed long ago.

The CodeNewbie podcast is a wonderful place for developers who are newer to the world of coding. One of the most interesting episodes is the one with Mary L Gordon that covers what coding was like in the 1960s. It’s a fascinating, insightful history lesson that brings you back to the era of punch cards and room-size machines.

Jumping forward a decade or two is The Big Web Show’s interview with Jeff Veen from TypeKit, where he talks about the early web and the impact it has had on the present. In a similar vein, and from a similar era, is The Shop Talk Show interview with John Resig, who created the JQuery library and was, at the time of the broadcast, the dean of computer science at Khan Academy. 

Who do you depend on?

Dependency management is every developer’s favorite topic to criticize, complain about, understand, and, once in a while, try to fix. In the Bike Shed episode There Will Never Be One Right Way, Ashley Williams (from NPM) discusses the intricacies of dependencies and how developers are approaching them in the NPM ecosystem.

I also have to include Homebrew and Swift, with Max Howell, from the Changelog. I am a big fan of both technologies, and Homebrew is another package manager that brings up interesting discussions about dependency management, but this podcast gets even more interesting when you hear Max’s stories about interviewing with Apple and Google. Let's just say that things didn’t go according to plan, and his tendency to speak too bluntly in public places makes for compelling listening.

Stay safe

I’m always eager to hear more non-American voices in podcasts (voices from Silicon Valley still tend to dominate the conversation). Curiously, though, the field of software security is not dominated by American voices; Australians are more heavily represented. (Disclaimer: I am half Australian and find it nice to hear voices from the homeland.)

Episode 445 of Risky Business is overflowing with security shop talk. It's almost overwhelming. I'm also highlighting this episode because the guests are two of the best experts in the field of security: Troy Hunt (who delivers security courses all over the world) and Haroon Meer (founder of thinkst). This episode serves as a great jumping-off point for starting to learn more on the subject of security.

What are your must-listen podcast episodes?

I spent hours listening to recommendations that I received for this article and could have added dozens more. There’s never been a better time to find interesting developer podcast content, so if you have your own recommendations (they don't even have to be targeted at developers), I'd love to see them in the comments.


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