Growing Your Career as a Developer Advocate

First Published: October 29, 2021

The more experience I get managing developer advocates (and now managers of developer advocates as well), the more I realize how little content there is about how to be a developer advocate. There are many great resources about what Developer Relations is, how to get into it (I did write a book about it, after all), and how to build community, but very few good sources of information about how to be good at the job and how to grow your career in developer advocacy.

This is a precarious position for an industry. Developer advocate job positions are exploding, but if we don't make a serious effort to provide training and mentorship to these folks, we are setting up new developer advocates to burn out and fail. The nebulous nature of DevRel jobs makes it all too easy to get chewed up and spit out by Sisyphean cycles of content creation and travel. I'm particularly worried about early career developers quickly jumping into DevRel, as well as inexperienced dev advocates being hired to be a company's first and only advocate. Let me be clear: I am in full support of those folks getting into the industry and have zero desire for gatekeeping (I stand by my self-proclaimed title of Professional Gate-opener!), but it is the responsibility of the hiring company and manager to empower these inexperienced advocates to thrive and succeed.

That's not at all to say that there aren't amazing DevRel managers and leaders working hard to provide exactly that training and support. I'm friends with many of those leaders and it's wonderful to see. My chief concern is that the rate of dev advocate jobs will quickly surpass the supply of great DevRel managers unless there is an explosion of resources in this area, simply because DevRel is big business for SaaS companies and is now an essential part of software strategy. It's very easy to spin up a job opening and throw some money at it; it's much, much harder to teach someone how to be a good dev advocate. It's even harder to be a dev advocate and know whether you're being treated fairly, paid what you're worth, and growing in your title, compensation, and responsibility.

No one just wakes up one day and knows how to be a developer advocate. Honestly, I really wish someone had just sat me down at the beginning of my transition into DevRel and said, "Hey, here's the game you're playing, here's how to be good at it, and here's how to know if you're growing in your career." This article is my first crack at just that.

I want to warn you: some of this advice is potentially going to sound cold or mercenary. You and I both know that the true joy of Developer Relations is service to the community and building relationships. In this article, though, I'm trying to help you win in your career, which means translating your activities to the business and using them to ask for promotions and raises. This is a specific game with specific rules and it doesn't negate all the warm fuzzy things we all love about meeting and talking with our fellow developers in the community. You just can't pay the bills with warm fuzzies, and many companies will ride that wave for years with you until you're burned out and haven't made any progress.

The 3 Goals of a Developer Advocate

I want to share with you a big picture concept that is helpful in the dev advocate career. I love Developer Relations because I think it's one of the rare opportunities to achieve three things at once in your career:

  1. Build your career (whatever that means to you, whether money, title, freedom, etc)
  2. Empower and serve the community
  3. Make a measurable impact on a business

Those three things have to work in harmony. It's not hard to see what happens when the business is the only priority, but many of us have also seen many open source maintainers get eaten alive by dedicating all of their energy and work to the community at the expense of their own career. DevRel provides a platform for all three, but it's not easy to get those dials tuned to the right frequency and the risks are high (burnout, work-life balance, etc).

DevRel is Arbitrage

For the dev advocate, a career in DevRel is an arbitrage opportunity. Here's a definition of arbitrage paraphrased from Investopedia:

Arbitrage is the simultaneous purchase and sale of the same asset in different markets in order to profit from differences in the asset's price.

What is the asset here? Simply put, it's you: your ability to build an audience, notice trends, build credibility, and make an impact on a developer community. As a developer, you've got the "street cred" needed to be genuinely embedded in developer communities. As an advocate, you've got the influence to make a difference and educate.

Most developer advocates I know don't have a full appreciation for how valuable this is to a SaaS company (the "market" in this case). Do you know how many product marketers are dying to be able to listen in on the conversations you have access to? But how awkward would it be if a Product Marketer busted into that community Discord you're in and started asking about satisfaction scores or feature messaging? "Hey fellow kids, do you like the JavaScripts?"

This is the root of the arbitrage opportunity. You get to take your expertise and use it to funnel resources from a business in order to help a community and achieve whatever success means for you and your family. It's a virtuous cycle, but it takes some work and the right circumstances to pull it off: impact the business to get more resources to make a bigger impact on the community and grow your career in the process.

Know Where You Sit in the Business

Once you understand the arbitrage game of DevRel, your next step is to understand where you sit in the business in order to know how you can make an impact. Developer Relations teams can live in a lot of different places in a company, including but not limited to:

  • Marketing, where you are primarily the "top of the funnel," driving awareness, signups, and engagement
  • Product/Engineering, where you are primarily driving product feedback
  • Customer Success/Support, where you are primarily concerned with ticket deflection

There are also a few companies that make Developer Relations its own organization so that it can be a blend of all of the above.

I happen to think that Marketing is the best opportunity for the arbitrage I'm talking about, but odds are you won't have a say where your team lives in the organization. The important thing is to start learning about your department's goals and metrics. How do they measure success each quarter and each year? Most business objectives boil down to essentially more revenue and less risk, and then each department has its own blend of goals that contribute to those objectives.

One of the main ways to grow your career as a developer advocate is to identify how your department contributes to business objectives and then connect the dots from those department goals to your day-to-day work.

In theory, your manager should do this for you, or, if you have a great manager, guide you through uncovering it yourself. If you know where you sit in the business and what the department goals are, you can align your activities accordingly. For example, if you sit in Marketing and know that awareness and acquisition are key metrics, you can start adding UTM links or query parameters to your articles, videos, and conference talks to get attribution of traffic and signups.

What you don't want is to only be giving talks at conferences or creating content with no reporting or outcome tied to it. It's too easy for execs to misconstrue that: "Why are we spending all this money on conferences and swag? Are we just furnishing these employees' lavish digital nomad lifestyle!?" On the other extreme, I know many dev advocates that had their entire departments cut as a result of COVID-19, as many execs started asking, "What's even the point of Developer Relations if they can't travel?" These are both fundamental misunderstandings of DevRel that can be avoided when you tie your work back to business objectives and department goals.

DevRel Career Keys

How you thread the needle between business objectives and DevRel activities is going to be specific to your department and your product, but I want to teach you the keys to look out for to find opportunities that have that trifecta of business impact, community help, and career growth. Creating content, giving talks, and doing community work is all wonderful, but it's dangerously easy to get stuck on a treadmill, burn out, and realize you haven't advanced your career at all, even though the business has benefited from your time and audience.

DevRel Career Key: Ownership

The first key is ownership. Find projects, programs, and initiatives that you can own. You can build a lot of great skills this way, like project management, communication, and setting and achieving goals. Be responsible and accountable for the performance of your program or initiative. How is it doing? Is it growing? What impact is it having on the business and the community?

Some of the lowest hanging fruit for ownership in dev advocacy are technical and regional strategy. Hardly anyone does this as an individual contributor, but it's a sure fire way to impress management. Be the advocate who owns the strategy for your region. In what technical communities and countries in your region should your team invest and how? How would those activities differ from other regions or globally? Get your company to buy some research reports from Evans Data Corporation and SlashData, then compare it with internal data about where customers are coming from. What opportunities are there? If you build a report on this and your manager isn't blown away by it, it might be time for a different manager.

DevRel Career Key: Visibility

Ownership is valuable, but it's not enough. You also have to do work that's visible to the company, not just to your team. Your goal is to ship projects or programs that make an impact and get noticed for it.

How do you know what kinds of projects will gain you visibility? Here's a trick: pick programs or projects that you could explain to the CEO (or some other exec) in a few minutes and they would understand the impact. The CEO isn't down in the weeds of developer communities. What do they care about? They care about growing the value and reach of the business. "I'm working on a developer tool that's going to fundamentally improve customer experience for millions of people" is going to get their attention.

There are a couple of components to visibility when you're working on such a project. The first is regular reporting. You need to share the wins, misses, and (most importantly) the data that shows the trajectory and impact over time of your project at least on a quarterly basis. The more you measure and report, the better you'll get at it. You'll start to uncover key metrics that you may not have noticed before. For example, when I was running the Auth0 Ambassadors program and digging deep into the data, I realized that the most valuable metric was actually "time to first contribution." Ambassadors who got up and running quickly were more likely to stay in the program. I made several updates to the program based on that observation.

There is a second component to visibility that you have less control over: your manager. One of the foremost responsibilities of a DevRel manager is to find opportunities for visibility for you. They're in cross-team meetings that you're not in, they're talking to other teams you're not talking to, and they're aware of higher level goals and strategy that may not be immediately relevant to your day-to-day work. A good manager will find places you can present your work, share your successes on your behalf to upper management, and think of other projects you can take on for more visibility. If they're not proactive about this, ask them to be. Many managers are drowning in paperwork and HR issues and, despite their best intentions, find themselves watching the ball go by instead of knocking it out of the park. The good ones will care a lot about you and want to help; they want to be proactive instead of reactive. Beware any manager that discourages you from this kind of work or seems like they just want to take credit out of jealousy. Run like the wind.

DevRel Career Key: Collaboration

One of the best ways you can get visibility is through collaboration. Collaboration comes in many forms:

  • Collaborating with other team members (joint talks for example)
  • Collaborating with other teams, e.g. Product Marketing, Social Media, the SDK team
  • Collaborating with other companies (i.e. co-marketing)

The first and third options often come naturally through building relationships, but I really believe that the second type - collaborating with other teams - is the key to getting internal visibility and advancing your career. Why? I have the advantage of now being in an upper management position, and let me tell you: the big, gnarly goals that a company must face nearly always take multiple teams to achieve. Start getting to know the different teams in your department. What do they want? What do they need? What are their goals? Start to find some overlap and then do some experiments. Not all of them will take off; I've had many experiences where an internal collaboration looks great on paper, but then some combination of factors makes it flop. Maybe there's not buy-in from the leaders of that team, maybe they have too much going on that quarter, or maybe when we dig deeper we realize that there's not as much overlap as we thought. That's okay. Occasionally, though, you'll run into a collaboration that works beautifully, and you've now doubled or tripled the number of people advocating for you in the company.

What do you have to offer these other teams? Plenty, but here are two gems you can start with: developer use cases for the product and developer intelligence on trends and sentiment. You're talking to developers all day, every day, and you're doing it (hopefully) with a sales-neutral attitude. This gives you a huge advantage, as you're able to build trust in communities that other teams could only dream of. The engineering teams would have the street cred, but they may not have the time or inclination to be as involved in communities as you are. The marketing and sales teams wouldn't be able to get in the door, but desperately need your insight so they can create authentic, inclusive messaging. Are you seeing a spike in Rust usage in your region? Share it (with data!). Did you notice a negative reaction to an ad or a release? Share it (just be mindful of how you share it). If you notice a particular team finding your insights useful, see if you can strike up an experimental joint project with them.

DevRel Career Key: Scaling

The final key is also the highest impact: scaling. No matter how well-funded your DevRel team is, you'll never have enough people to scale linearly. You have to come up with ways to scale the impact of the team and its initiatives without needing a 1-for-1 correlation between team members and output. Help with this and you're golden.

How do you help with scaling? Here are a few ideas to ponder:

  • How could you bring in agencies or contractors to offload some of the work that is not core to developer advocates? That might mean scaffolding out coding projects (like internal tools for example), editing articles or videos, building systems, or managing programs and projects.
  • How could you centralize research and development for content so advocates aren't reinventing the wheel every time a new framework comes out?
  • How could you scale your content strategy and marketing? Many DevRel teams are not very good at re-purposing and promoting existing content. Can you systematize re-surfacing existing content? Can you iterate and improve on existing talks? Can you go deeper on a subject instead of trying to jump to another one?

A caveat here: remember that there is little value in scaling for the sake of scaling. If you scale too quickly, you risk damaging credibility by making mistakes or negatively impacting your team culture by hitting them with a barrage of extra work if the right systems aren't in place. There's also a risk that you'll scale the wrong things. Create Tiny Experiments, see which ones are working, and then ramp up the successful ones to drive particular outcomes. You might find that the great idea you had was a little more complex in reality than you thought, but that the community runs with a different idea because of some X-factor that you never considered.

Let's Recap

Developer Relations is a fantastic field because it's one of the rare opportunities to achieve three things at once in your career:

  1. Build your career
  2. Empower and serve the community
  3. Make a measurable impact on a business

All three of these are necessary, as neglecting any of them will lead to a lot of stress and chaos in your life. To grow your career in DevRel, there are two main things you need to know:

  1. DevRel is an arbitrage opportunity where your brand is the asset and the SaaS company is the market. You can make a huge impact in the community by funneling resources from a business and grow your career in the process.
  2. One of the main ways to grow your career as a developer advocate is to identify how your department contributes to business objectives and then connect the dots from those department goals to your day-to-day work.

As you work through those two big ideas, use these four career keys to guide what work you choose to take on:

  • Ownership: what programs and initiatives are you responsible and accountable for?
  • Visibility: who in the company knows what you're working on?
  • Collaboration: how can you help other teams achieve their goals?
  • Scaling: how do you move away from 1:1 output and impact?

I hope this article has been helpful. As always, I care much more about your results than being right. Hop on my newsletter below and let me know what you've tried, where you need help, and what I may have missed. This is just the first iteration of my attempt to distill everything I've learned into practical, actionable advice for developer advocates to "hold the door open" for those coming after me. We still need to talk about how you negotiate for raises and promotions, dig deeper into metrics and reporting, and much more. Keep me posted on your progress and good luck!

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