Table of Contents
After almost four years of developer advocacy as my main job, I am going back to software engineering. This blog post is my venting rant about what I think is going wrong with developer advocacy/devrel/you-name-it at the moment and why it’s not for me at its current state.
I think there is a major mismatch between company expectations what developer relations are able to achieve and deliver and what happens in the real world, especially if your product is closed source. Not being able to share progress, no exposed roadmap, no way to discuss with developers it is more complex for advocates to find topics to talk about and also lead technical people into some kind of interest funnel that is not purely sales or leads driven. Transparency is required for advocates to go to work.
Also, your product needs to be ready. You cannot hire an advocate if there is no product to present. Have an old school top-down driven sales process, no free product to test within five minutes after creating an account? No need for an advocate.
Developer advocacy is everything… and nothing
This is one of my biggest issues at the moment. I did my fair share of interviews in the last months, and every developer relations role felt like it was the opposite from the interview I had an hour before that. Generating leads, taking over the documentation, being a partner to product management, on-site consulting, organizing conference booths, budgeting, create marketing materials, participating in product development, creating and running weekly workshops, maintaining integrations into other products, travelling your geo region up to 80% of the working time.
While that shows a great amount of diverse tasks (which I like), an advocate is not a swiss army knife and two persons will perform highly differently with that kind of different tasks. On top of that, companies often have a hard time to imagine the change of those tasks in the next quarters based on expected product changes, which makes it really tough to come up with a proper job description.
Company culture needs to default to open
This is the most important one. Hiring your first advocate into a company that has a lot of organizational silos will have a bad outcome. “Hey can you open a bug report? No, not in the public GitHub repository, but in JIRA, otherwise it will not be part of the sprint” - this is a red flag. It’s hard to fix engineering habits, if you are an advocate, especially if leadership does not see this as a problem.
Advocates are supposed to create content, a lot of it. This however is not the sole purpose. I do expect solid technical knowledge from an advocate, and this means that not only this kind of one way communication should be thought of, but much more anything that involves a dialog like discussions forums, mailing lists, GitHub or in-person events. It is telling, if you do not have this kind of two communication channels created at all.
If all you need is unidirectional content creation, that sounds like product marketing to me, as you don’t care for feedback - or you lack the necessary adoption for product feedback.
The magic community manifestation after hiring
I’ve seen this at many interviews, that companies dream of a sudden manifestation of a solid community, once an advocate gets to work. While an advocate can help, you need to have foundations in place like a growth trajectory and existing adoption. Otherwise you need to be comfortable with a multi-year ride - and also communicate this to the advocate.
Grass roots vs old school big bang marketing
How do you get to work as an advocate, especially if you’re the first one? To me it means validating a lot of hypotheses what users expect, testing content and gathering feedback. That’s why I always opt for going small at the beginning and start with meetups, smaller conferences, before going big. If you waste your budget for that one reinvent per year that costs six digits without anyone flying in and accommodating in Las Vegas, we’re back to marketing from my experience - both can coexist though. And if you are a well known brand already, that big bang approach might work for a new product.
Authenticity vs lead generation as the only goal
You are in marketing, your job is to generate leads.
What else than
No are you able to answer to such a question. Well, how
yes? After all it is the job of an advocate to get users to a
platform. However it’s not about a lead generated within a single quarter,
but about nurturing the user. It’s never about the direct conversion, but
about the ability to answer “sorry, but our product cannot do this yet, but
let’s talk about your use-case in more detail and let me show what we can
do and share the future roadmap in the next couple of months”. As usual, it
DevRel as a lifestyle
This is one of my favorites. For many folks, being part of the DevRel circle that travels the world to the most fancy places and educates users sounds like the ultimate goal. To me, it absolutely isn’t. Not only in face of the climate catastrophe (knowing there are folks and companies doing carbon offsets, which OTOH might not have any influence, I know the world is complex), but also the amount of travelling is becoming high making it hard to do any other work. And yes, there are some people being able to do this, but they are rare exceptions from what I see. Also I am happy to see my daughter as much as possible - this was never a problem with any of my previous jobs. It’s all about setting the right priorities for yourself - and sometimes travelling a lot is what you want.
Also companies have been a lot more averse to this in the last year, mainly because that one conference in Mauritius is probably not important from a company perspective and you’re really interested in doing a follow-up holiday there (I get it, but our profession is well paid, there should no need to pull this).
Advocates are not influencers (and vice versa)
This is on-going trend: Companies hiring folks with a lot of followers hoping this translates to their company. It won’t. I remember running a couple of interviews, where candidates boasted with their private community and I could not understand why they did, until I made the connection to influencers and that this is a goal of a candidate to have an independent community, making it easier to switch companies (I don’t think that should be a pro or contra in any case). I don’t think that this is in any way beneficial for either party and have not seen this played out properly.
Few weeks ago there was a group of data engineering influencers dubbing themselves something along the avengers theme, including a fancy video and lots of noise on LinkedIn and talking about taking over a conference. This makes it look as if it is all about reach, buzz and brand amplification and rarely about helping a user. This also looks like a nice way out, if you have a hard time finding technical talent for your own advocacy team, but those are two different marketing strategies.
Advocates need to be taken serious within the company
This sounds rather minor within a company built on trust, as every voice is taken serious. Again this hints at issues with the whole company culture. If you are deemed less technical because of working in a different department, the company has other issues than needing developer advocacy. If no bug report is even ever touched, because it has not been opened by an engineer, good luck when you have users…
Note that this is a two way street and also means, that you need to be skilled as an advocate in order to be taken serious.
Do not work as an advocate with a product you never used in production
This is a personal one I noticed for myself and a major reason for me to back out of advocacy for the moment. If you are doing advocacy for a product that you never ran in production, it’s a different thing than you knowing that product inside out, because you have been a user or even a developer before. That made me feel uncomfortable and I would only return to developer advocacy on a product I am technically excellent with.
This opinion is extremely biased. I know plenty of advocates who are doing a fantastic job who did not run the respective product in production prior joining the company. I do not think this is a must-have for the job, but it definitely is a must-have for me personally!
Enough points collected to end this little post. For some job ads I have a hard time seeing the point of hiring a developer advocate, when a product marketer or a sales person probably is the better choice, depending on the state of your product, your company and the kind of advocacy that is required. Hint: That also makes a great interview question when you interview for such a position.
What I still love about developer relations is the broad scope. Being technical, writing code, helping users, preparing content, doing a little bit of travel is an excellent mixture of tasks and I think I will keep doing that even within a software engineering job.
Also keep in mind, that developer relations will always be seen as a cost center and thus one of the first functions that will be reduced or eliminated in case of cuts. In the last months I saw a fair share of advocacy teams disassembled and/or heavily reduced, as a skilled team of software engineers were supposed to take over a part of the previous tasks. That only works, if the engineers are willing and motivated to take over those additional tasks that will also reduce the development output.
While I ranted a lot, there are definitely companies understanding all of this. Elastic is a great company doing a lot of things around developer relations right (not only during the time I was part of that team, but also before and after that) - and if you’re interested, there is even a job open for a US Senior Developer Advocate when this blog post was published. Other companies that seem to have interesting advocacy jobs to me are the most technical ones that mainly have a technical audience, thinking of Oracle or fly.io - a good measurement to me is, if there are long time advocates within the company.
Unless I find the perfect product again (like Elasticsearch in my case in 2011), that I am deeply familiar with I will probably stop being an advocate and enjoy solving coding and system challenges.
Oh, and while I think there is still an influx of developer advocates as it is an interesting role, there is also folks moving out again to go back into software engineering, like in this YouTube video. Which I think is always good, as it breeds the next generation, that also gets to define the role in their own terms. I’m probably just too old 😂