Srushtika Neelakantam

@n.srushtika

A fresher’s guide to DevRel

Today marks the first anniversary of my DevRel life a.k.a I’m no longer a fresher. By popular demand, here’s an article explaining what it takes to be in DevRel right at the start of your career and the work that it actually involves.

Psst..The content of this article is purely from my personal thoughts and experience and not a representation of any of my professional endeavours whatsoever.

Where I come from, i.e India, the term ‘fresher’ is used to indicate a person who has just finished graduation and has no work experience. Today, I cease to be a fresher. It’s as much refreshing as it’s nostalgic. It’s also sad that like a lot of other things, I’m done being a fresher and I already feel old.

I got my first job as a Developer Evangelist in a country that’s 1000s of miles away from my home. In spite of the six other job offers I had in hand which would let me stay in my home city, I took the former just because this was the only one in DevRel. This article is a brain dump of what I’ve learnt about DevRel in this last one year and why I took the job offer in this whole other continent.

DevRel (shorthand for Developer Relations) is currently considered to be the most sought after role. It seems super dreamy to the eyes of a non-DevRel person looking at tweets from DevRel people on Twitter (Yes, that’s basically our jam!). I’ve been asked by at least a thousand people in the last one year about what exactly this role entails and how can they be part of it.

A lot has been said and done to explain Developer Relations and why it’s important to a developer facing company but I’ve never come across anyone who’s first job was or is in DevRel (Guess things just worked out for me!). Hence, I’d like to share my perspective (as a newbie non-fresher if you will) on DevRel. This post is for all those who don’t have a DevRel department in their company and hence do not quite understand the role and that it could be different for different types of companies. Also for those aspiring to be part of a DevRel team, just because it sounds fancy and fun.

Please note that this is my personal take on what I think it is all about.

A Developer Relations department, more often than not, consists of roles like Community Manager, Tech Author, Developer Evangelist, Developer Advocate and sometimes even Growth Hackers and Marketers. Developer Relations aims at building positive relationships with Developers — who are the primary customers of developer facing companies, such as Ably, where I currently work as a Developer Advocate.

These relationships become positive only when the company’s developer customers are happy. And for developers, happiness comes from a flawless product documentation, easy navigation of the website, responsive customer support, constructive on-boarding, helpful tutorials, engaging events/contests and anything in-between. This is exactly where the DevRel team’s focus is.

Depending on the size or product or genre of the tech company, the goals of a Developer Evangelist/Advocate shall differ. (btw, did you know that both of these terms are used to define the exact same thing? Read this quick article that my current boss wrote last year, to understand more. I’ll be using it interchangeably in this article)

  • In a global MNC, among other things, the focus of a Developer Evangelist is to be present at as many events over the world as possible, sharing general tech knowledge while also mentioning that they are representing an XYZ company. Sometimes a Developer Evangelist is also responsible to on-board in-house, newly recruited developers, to get them to be on the same page as everyone else.
  • In a tech startup, the focus of a Developer Evangelist is to get as many developer users as possible for the product and make sure the existing users have everything they need to understand and make the most use of the product.
  • In a middle-level tech company, the focus of a Developer Evangelist might not only be attending tech events but also build various in-house strategies to attract and retain developer customers.

Even though, it means different things for different companies, the important thing is that the larger goal of a DevRel team is to share knowledge — be it about a programming language, about a Software Engineering discipline or even the tech details of the company’s own product.

Hence, to me, a Developer Evangelist is supposed to be a person who is capable of converting an advanced level conference talk into something that can be enjoyed by a beginner level audience, while retaining the tech details of the original content. Hence, in my honest opinion, all resources shared what-so-ever by a Developer Evangelist must contain an introductory material to the topic being covered or at least link to other simple materials following which even beginner developers can follow the advanced material.

Dev experience in DevRel

It is a well established fact that some of the greatest minds who build solutions to the most complex problems sometimes just don’t feel comfortable enough to communicate what they did. Sometimes, they don’t want to waste time doing the latter as they enjoy the former more than anything.

Hence, there’s this huge gap between the creators of tech and consumers of tech- which is exactly what a DevRel team aims to fill.

As I mentioned before, my first ever job has been one in DevRel and although I had worked on a lot of hobby projects during college and as an intern with startups looking to launch their tech products, I didn’t have any full time experience as a Developer at a company. Of course sometimes I felt (still feel) overwhelmed by the amazing things that people share on Twitter and I find myself constantly thinking, “Oh my, there are so many things in the world that I still don’t know about”. But the truth is and trust me, I’ve heard it from people myself — most of the people are in the same boat as me (or you!).

There is this unbelievably amazing technology being churned out in the world, every single day. The rate of it’s evolution is simply out of the bounds of a single human. Hence, it’s common that a person who is an expert in one area knows only sparing details of another area but as an audience, you consume a collective creation of all these different experts put together, hence making you feel that you are the only person not knowing a lot of things.

If anything, every single post I see on Twitter, only encourages me to learn something new. If I like it, I would naturally spend more time on it, understand it well, do my research, experiment and be so confident with it that I would now feel the NEED to share it with other in the simplest way possible so they don’t have to spend as much time as me or go through as much material to only connect the dots at the end. And, I LOVE doing this.

My day is made when I’m able to make someone understand something they didn’t understand before that I only recently understood myself after having spent a lot of time understanding. (The complexity of this sentence being the irony :P But it’s fun, no?)

Sometimes DevRel can mean donning multiple hats together

A huge DevRel team means that each Developer Advocate gets to spend time on experimenting what could be best for the company’s developer customers — in terms of writing interesting tutorials, speaking about the hottest tech trends, conducting webinars, writing thought provoking tech articles, recording screencasts, hand drawing sketches that explain complex data structures/ algorithms, coming up with a more efficient tech support strategy, building an educational guide for the product or even just attending as many developer events as possible to try and have a face-to-face interaction with every other person in tech.

But a smaller DevRel team means doing more than one of these, simultaneously. It’s a beautiful balancing act that inherently comes with an experimental quality. Too much or too less of anything can be dangerous. Hence you constantly evolve the strategies, keep a regular check on metrics, analyse what’s working and what’s not based on multiple variables, etc.

Does being a fresher come in handy?

Most certainly, a fresher does not have the same experience as a person who becomes a Developer Advocate after years of spending time as a developer and has first hand experience of tech issues and coming up with solutions.

As much as I agree with the fact that an experienced person is super worthy of talking about a certain tech topic, a newbie on the contrary, spends ten times more time understanding the topic himself/herself first. Only then do they have enough confidence to be able to share it with others. Even though it may not include the same content as other experienced DAs, it sure does introduce a completely different perspective to understand.

Everybody wants to be a part of DevRel

As I mentioned this before, there’s a huge desire in recent graduates to get into DevRel (I take shameless credit for having inspired one or two ;) ). Even a super cool role like this does involve serious work. It’s a huge misunderstanding that Developer Evangelists are these hipster people who roam around the world sharing some basic tips in development. Believe me people, a lot goes behind-the-scenes of every post published, every tutorial authored and every talk presented. Content being the biggest challenge, a lot of other things come into play as well such as the visual presentation, tech breakdown, relevance, tech level and length of the material, to name a few. Being on stage in front of thousands of people, is not easy, being open to spark up meaningful conversations with strangers who later go on to be good friends is not easy. Being open to accept criticism publicly and keep learning and improving constantly is not easy. Nothing about it is easy.

DevRel is not easy. But it sure is super fun to those who like being enthusiastic about the amazing things being built and just can’t stop talking about it.

Of course, being in DevRel also means that you don’t get to spend as much time writing actual code. This is frustrating to a lot of people, which then affects their whole decision of moving into DevRel. I have also seen a lot of people move back to being Developers after spending a short time in DevRel. Hence, it’s very important to understand what it is before you decide to be part of it.

People who know me, know that I’m a super talkative person and I guess my mom being an undergrad university Professor in CS also instilled in me the joy of teaching complex things to others; hence I think DevRel came naturally to me. I’m not saying I’m great at it, but I love being involved in it and learn things as they come. The same passion drove me to be associated with the Mozilla Foundation since college, first as a Firefox Student Ambassador, later as a Rep and now as a Tech Speaker. The same love for telling the world how easy something is that they only thought was complex, drove me to co-author a book on Virtual Reality. I love talking and writing about what I know; and I’m super interested to learn what I don’t, in a way that I’m able to then share it with others by myself.

If you could relate with this article in any way and this is something you’d love to do constantly, then DevRel is for you. Start finding opportunities! But if you couldn’t relate, then my friend, you just had the wrong idea of DevRel until now.

Experienced Developer != Sr. Developer Advocate/Head of DevRel

By now, you would have understood that a DevRel team has completely different goals, responsibilities, skillset required etc, when compared to either a tech team full of developers or a marketing team. Hence, even if you have spent a lot of years being a Developer, you would need to spend some time in DevRel itself to understand it accurately. Hence, a jump from being an experienced developer to a Sr. Dev Advocate is very less likely to be fruitful to both you and the company.

DevRel in India

Unfortunately, the DevRel scene is pretty bleak in India. Compared to Europe and the States, the number of conferences that happen here are extremely less. Although a lot of people (such as Siddharth and Dhananjay) who’ve understood this are doing great efforts to change this by organising some meaningful events in India and connecting with the global DevRel community by inviting them over to participate and contribute. However, it’s still very far from having the tech community consider ‘Developer Evangelist’ as a natural job role. There are quite a few companies that do have a DevRel department, but the goals vary a lot.

I myself have been offered Developer Evangelist roles, in companies in India, with the focus being on plain marketing and not on developers/community building. This is a completely wrong idea and if you are one of those, please understand it before you hire. You are probably changing the meaning of this role for a lot of people. The evergreen post by Christian Heilmann is always a good starting point.

If you are a developer facing tech company, it’s time you seriously start thinking of building a DevRel team and if you are an individual looking to join a DevRel team for the first time, make sure you get your facts right and understand well what you are getting into and make the correct judgement.

I’m super excited to have finished one year of my professional life y’all! I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me understand all sorts of things and helped me grow so much as a person and a professional in this past year. You know who you are :) Meanwhile, if you’d like to follow my work, I too, tweet a lot (but not as much as I talk ;) ). I currently live in London, England and work with a Realtime Data Stream Network provider, called Ably Realtime

Just a quick brain dump, so please ignore any grammar stupidities. I know the title is a bit misleading since I’m no longer a fresher. But do you care? :)

For absolutely any questions, feel free to reach out to me via Twitter. My DMs are always open :D

Ciao for now.

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