James Governor's Monkchips

Sympathy for the DevRel

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I recently gave the closing keynote at DevRelCon in London, run by Matt Revell and Tamao Nakahara. The conference is building momentum nicely – the first was held above a shop in Shoreditch in 2015, but this year it was held at the QEII center in Westminster.

I really wanted to do a good job, because the Developer Relations community are our people. Matt had originally asked me to talk about walking that fine line between the business and human side of developer relations. How to maintain the humanity of a community while also scaling up. Is professionalisation the enemy of empathy? I had come up with what I thought was a good title – Empathy for the Devil, with the thought in my mind that big company mentality could be seen as making a deal with the devil, but not everything about scaling is bad. I put a set of slides together I was happy with.

Then, the day before the event, my friend Alexis Richardson – who has the naming gene – (and coincidentally is Tamao’s boss) simply said: “Oh that should be… Sympathy for the DevRel”

Queue much face-palming and gnashing of teeth. That. Title. Is. So. Much. Better. Things only got worse when Alvaro Videla, who we were hanging out with, said: “every slide should be a Rolling Stones song.” Of course it should.

And so I began Operation Rework Slides. By the next day late afternoon I was ready to go.

So what was my Sympathy for the DevRel presentation about? Well, I did indeed talk about how bigger companies think about and support Developer Relations – with lessons from IBM, and Microsoft, but also younger firms including MongoDB, Stripe, and Twilio.

The Big Idea in my presentation is perhaps that the related disciplines of Developer Experience, Developer Relations, and Developer Advocacy can be understood in terms of when the empathy is applied.

Developer Experience (DX) puts the empathy up front. It’s in the code of conduct (always have and enforce a code of conduct!), it’s in the documentation, it’s in the design of the API. DX is about having empathy for the experience of the developer, pre-empting complaints, getting it right with design and code samples for onramps that work for everyone. Stripe is a great example of putting the empathy up front – everything about the experience is about making life easier for the developer. Write more, fly less!

Developer Relations is empathy at the point of engagement. When you’re in the room, up on stage presenting to people, trying to understand their needs, doing the demo, making sure people understand what you’re saying. Listening and learning and teaching, with empathy for the people you’re teaching and engaging with. Twilio absolutely nailed it by industrialising dev rel, catching the hackathon wave perfectly and riding it all the way to the IPO.

Developer Advocacy is about empathy after the fact. You’ve learned from developers and the community, when you’re working with them. You’ve seen complaints on twitter, blogs, and Stack Overflow, you’ve seen folks cut themselves while trying to replicate your demo. You’re learning from developers and now you’re taking that knowledge back to the product engineering team to make things better for developers in future. Microsoft’s rebuilding program for dev rel puts a lot of store by hiring advocates that are good enough engineers they can make meaningful impacts on product.

Ideally organisations do all three, but often they are better at one or two of the related disciplines. I am not totally sure this framework works, but I figured using it with a bunch of dev rel people was a good way to learn more.

So case studies, a big idea, and finally empathy by me for Developer Relations professionals. I worry for my friends. I see them eating badly, drinking too much, travelling too much, not giving enough attention to their girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses and kids.

Developer Relations do so much emotional labor, and it takes a toll. Burnout is real. Imposter Syndrome is common, and in devrel you’re always putting it out there. So yeah I asked my people to look after themselves. The most important thing you can say in developer relations in no. Say no to your bosses. Say no to that conference organiser. Say no to everyone except your family and friends.

You can’t get no satisfaction.

It’s not that your employer doesn’t care about you, but you’re eager to please. It’s why you got into Dev Rel in the first place. You love to help, to teach, to be there for people.

I am well aware that a lot of the unhealthy behaviour applies to me. I will be at Kubecon in December. I did five trips to the USA in six weeks this Autumn. But I also say no. I take long vacations. At RedMonk we try to put family first, but we could do better.

Bottom line though – everyone is hiring. If you’re in DevRel you have choices. So say no, and look after yourself.

This thread by Mary Thengvall, who wrote the book on the Business Value of Developer Relations, is a great capture. Thanks Mary.


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