The DevRel Kerfluffle

5 min readJan 14, 2019

I saw a meme some years ago about how people interpret customer requirement. None of the solutions quite match customer expectations:

The “how the project was documented” gave me a few chuckles. I mean really, who enjoys writing documentation?

It is not uncommon for people to have misconceptions about what your job is. Years after graduating as an electrical engineer, my parents would ask me if I could fix the light switches. Medical doctors also get these requests, like a friend of mine that is an endocrinologist who gets questions about every body part other than glands.

Then there is the programmer / developer / software engineer. Whatever the title, invariably they end up becoming family tech support. While in theory it should be simple to explain what a developer does, illusions abound.

So it was with great interest that over the holiday I saw this tweet:

This tweet may require a “Yes Yes No” breakdown. Stephanie Hurlburt is a programmer with 40 thousand Twitter followers. A Developer Advocate is a person that does Developer Relations (DevRel). So Stephanie does not trust Developer Advocates because she feels they are just pitch people for their employers instead of people really helping developers.

But does the accusation hold water? As with most things in life, it is yes and no.

DevRel has been a rapidly growing field over the past ten years as developers have gained more buying power. With acceptance of the cloud, the growth in startups, and the rise of API’s to connect them, developers have risen in prominence and importance. This truly is now the age of the developer.

With this elevated status has come the rise in influence. Whereas corporate IT held the sway and purse strings to make buying decisions, developers now have more of the power to choose their tools, which explains the rise of GitHub and Slack in enterprises.

Developers are a lucrative market now and vendors are no dummies. The smart companies treat developers in a different way than they would other types of buyers. They build a community to support developers with content and code help and bringing feedback to their own engineers about product.

Global mascot for DevRel and Millennials…

The best DevRel groups are staffed by engineers and sit separate from sales and marketing so as to ensure true independence. They do not get paid commissions. They simply do what they love to do and have been doing anyway, which is write code, help other developers, and talk about the cool things they learn. They also like avocados…a lot.

As with anything good, there are always exceptions. Some companies think DevRel is a type of marketing. They send marketers to conferences, push marketecture over social media, and meet prospects and customers to give long, boring pitches. Some companies skip over the marketing arena and place DevRel in sales, sending out armies of sales engineers to engage the community armed with sales demos.

This is not a winning strategy if the goal is to win the hearts of developers. As Emily Freeman so eloquently puts it, engineers are having none of this:

Engineers can smell a salesperson like a shark smells blood.

I am not sure what companies have gone this route. The companies I work with have legitimate DevRel teams. As a someone that has been in sales , I can clearly differentiate their value and effort from that of a marketer or salesperson. They are the passionate voice of the developer and do so even when their advocacy runs counter to the official product marketing spin.

DevRel also serves a higher purpose beyond mere advocacy by supporting and rallying the developer community. Developers have more documentation, content, resources, and tools at their disposal because the DevRel field exists. They make themselves available at events and over social media. I have had the pleasure of working with some of these awesome humans organizing DevOpsDays NYC.

Because of my relationship with Stack Overflow, developers have often asked me whether they have a DevRel group. I give talks, support events, and do a lot of DevRel things. There is a Community Management team that engages with the site moderators and some engineers can be seen speaking at events. The odd thing though is that a site dedicated to developers does not actually have anything to directly sell to developers. Thus there is no DevRel group, but I continue to go out into the community to share some of the awesome work being done around the globe in various developer communities. In a sense, DEVBIZOPS is its own growing developer advocate community.

What are some technical events you most enjoy? What would be the types of events that you would be most interested in attending?

How to tell people I’m not their tech support?

A very handy question when hanging with family over the holidays…

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉