Good stuff is at the end, skip to it if you don’t want the context.
Being a PM at Twitch was the best job I ever had. At the end of my career, it probably still will be, but I’ve got some time before that. First, let’s rewind a bit.
Let’s do this one last time (also the first). My name is Sam Chen. I was bitten by the content creation bug and for 10 years I tried every which way to make a living doing what I loved. I’m pretty sure you know the rest, I tried podcasting, YouTubing, Instagramming, live streaming. I got a few downloads, a couple thousand views, some YouTube subs, and just over 200 Twitch follows. Earned approximately $0 doing it, ok I got one fake $10 Twitch donation. It was never easy. Sometimes it felt like the whole world was watching (or not watching), ready to see you fail. But that’s the thing about being a creator… You don’t do it because it’s easy. You do it because you can’t imagine doing anything else. <Spiderverse intro complete>
When I got the opportunity to work at Twitch, I jumped at the chance. As someone who had failed time and time again to make it as a content creator, I would actually get the chance to help them, the ones who had actually gotten the wheels turning, be more successful. I felt like if I couldn’t make it as a creator, at least I could help OTHERS make it as creators. This was the new dream.
For three years, I got to live this dream. Day in, day out, I lived and breathed the streamer community. I’d go to meetups, go on vacations with streamers, and spend holiday weekends sitting in a Specialty’s in Seattle drinking too much iced coffee and listening to streamers tell me about their lives. I got to know their pets and their spouses, their hopes and their fears, and most of all, I got to know who they were as people (spoiler alert: they’re people who have the same insecurities we all have).
After being at Twitch for a bit, and moving to the Creator Experience team, I became a de-facto first stop for onboarding new PMs at Twitch. “Go talk to that guy, he’s got great relationships with streamers, he’ll help you.” The first thing I told them was… if you really want to connect with a streamer. The first time you meet them, complain about something people hate about Twitch.
The truth most creators face every day is that the platform could make or break them any day. As much as I felt a responsibility to make it right for them, the leaders at the company had different stakeholders they had to answer to. Everyone loves to say “join the company, fix it from the inside”, what they don’t tell you is that:
1. It’s never that easy
2. There’s a reason it’s not fixed
3. You will constantly be swimming upstream
4. You’ll never feel like you’ve done enough
The hardest thing about working at Twitch, was seeing a decision be made that I didn’t agree with and knowing that I was powerless to stop it. Don’t get me wrong, there were decisions I spoke up for but lost the fight. The ones that I didn’t get to speak up for creators were the ones that hurt the most.
My favorite quote about empathy is from Dennis Lehane:
Sympathy is easy. You have sympathy for starving children swatting at flies on the late night commercials. Sympathy is easy because it comes from a position of power. Empathy is getting down on your hands and knees and looking someone else in the eyes, and realizing that you could be them, and that all that separates you is luck.
- Dennis Lehane
You know in Hamilton when Washington says “Winning was easy, governing’s harder”, that’s this quote in a nutshell. The thing they never tell you about building customer empathy is that when you do it long enough, it’s not just their highs become your highs, it’s their lows become your lows.
When I took my dream job, I never thought it would land me in biweekly therapy sessions. Therapy was great btw, I absolutely needed it and it completely changed my life and outlook on the future. It’s so many people’s dream to “work in gaming”, here I was living the dream, why did it feel so bad? It’s cause I knew when a product didn’t work out, it meant someone might not make rent that month. Building the wrong thing wasn’t just bad because it flopped, it was bad because we could have built something that succeeded.
This isn’t a “woe is me”. I still stand by the statement that this was my best job. These realizations actually helped me appreciate things so much more. I worked for Twitch, I had a paycheck, I had health insurance. I could take paid vacations, I wouldn’t have to worry about rent if I got sick and I could afford to have bad days/weeks/months. The people I considered my customers, the streamers, they were the ones that didn’t have that safety net.
The Part You Actually Came to Read
The only thing that separated me and the streamers I championed was luck. They were lucky they found success in content creation, I was lucky I didn’t find success in content creation. It’s very much akin to the philosophical concept of the “veil of ignorance.” I could just as easily have been on the other side of the table. Close friends have heard me talk about the idea of recognizing your own privilege. Recognizing you have it isn’t the hard part, it’s what you do with your privilege that defines who you are.
So here’s how that belief translated into what I did:
- I paid for every meal. Twitch gave me a pretty good paycheck. I could afford to buy people pizza, subs (physical or digital), or the occasional really bad plate of nachos at the Yard House in Seattle. It wasn’t guilt, it wasn’t obligation, it was my way of being thankful for the gift of getting to have a job where working with streamers was my day to day. [disclaimer: I did attend dinners with streamers where Twitch paid]
- I let them have the last word. Something you quickly realize as a Twitch PM is that streamers often feel lonely. They might have a ton of other streamer friends, but you often can’t count on them to have your back cause they’re competing for similar eyeballs and similar wallets. Sometimes they just want someone to listen. It didn’t matter if it was something I worked on or not; getting defensive was never the solution. The best I could do was try and share understanding. But I knew Twitch had the final say, so I let the streamer have the final word (even if those words weren’t very nice and shouted at my face, probably only once or twice).
- I thanked them for their time and, as often as I could, I also showed my appreciation in chat. I’ve talked to thousands of streamers by now, I moved recently and I still have my box full of streamer business cards. I might have missed a few of you in this process. But if you spent time with me, and I could feel you had the same kind of passion about Twitch that I did, I came to your chat and dropped subs or bits. It was never enough. But it also was never from Twitch’s pocket, always from mine.
- I let their stories move me. On a bad day, it was easy for me to say to myself, man they just don’t get it. But that was the point, they didn’t get it. Sometimes streamers didn’t get why we made those decisions. The only way I was ever going to make sure we made less mistakes and more wins was to feel as streamers felt. I often tell people the story of waking up on a Friday morning to have countless @ mentions to a streamer who posted about how Twitch was becoming less friendly to blind and visually impaired streamers. It was a problem I never thought I’d have to deal with. But I got on Discord, listened to everything they had to say, and to this day, I try to make sure everything I work on is more accessible to all kinds of people.
“Ok, Sam. What does this all have to do with your click-baity headline?
Alright, last point. It’s been 2 and a half years since I left Twitch. To this day, I’m proud to have many Twitch streamers in my life that I get to call friends. I have even more that have helped with random requests when I have them or taken time out of their day to help me do user research for a new job/company. Twitch is about communities. I spent every day at Twitch trying to become part of the streamer community. The only thing I ever got out of it was becoming a better person. I’ll never stop trying to give back to the community that gave me so much.
If you’re a PM reading this and you think “well that’s Twitch, I’m at ____ company and we don’t have that kind of community”, you’re wrong.