Developer Relations Career Insights From 7 Industry Leaders
I first heard about developer relations back in 2018 when I started speaking at technology conferences. Many companies send Developer Advocates or “DevRels” to these conferences to help promote their company, so I got to know a lot of people in the field.
This career path fascinates me because it blends technical knowledge with speaking, writing, and helping other developers. It was one of the alternative career paths that inspired me to write this article, and I’ve gotten to know much more about it in the past two years as many of our clients at Draft.dev are in the field.
That said, breaking into developer relations is a bit different than getting a job in software engineering. There’s no degree that focuses on DevRel, so people in the field come from a wide range of backgrounds and prior experiences.
So, I decided to ask several developer relations professionals about their careers. It was eye-opening to hear how their day-to-day work varied and the wide range of skills they had. In this post, I’ve captured several key takeaways from those conversations that will help you if you’re exploring or entering into a career in developer relations.
What Exactly do Developer Relations Professionals Do?
Every DevRel I spoke with mentioned a wide range of tasks that they engaged in on a regular basis:
“[DevRels] talk with customers in support, write blog posts, plan events, connect with product and engineering about upcoming releases, write docs, and really whatever else needed to be done.” - Justin Johnson, Macrometa
Developer relations is a relatively new field and as such, it’s not always clearly defined. In some companies, it’s a marketing function, while others lump it in with customer support or product management. Because of this, every DevRel position is different, and the KPIs (key performance indicators) that developer relations professionals report on can vary widely.
Some of the tasks I’ve seen Developer Relations professionals responsible for include:
- Maintaining open source libraries and SDKs
- Writing and maintaining documentation
- Building demo applications
- Speaking at conferences
- Running workshops and training
- Writing and publicizing blog posts and tutorials
- Managing user groups and online communities
- Announcing product releases
- SEO and keyword research
- Community research
- Managing social media
- Hosting developer podcasts
- Writing landing page copy
- Writing ebooks, whitepapers, and guides
At most companies, only one or two people hold a Developer Relations title, so they have to be generalists.
“I like DevRel because it’s interdisciplinary…In general, DevRel lets me use my broad skill set every day, from storytelling to speaking, from planning to management, and from development and design. DevRel really is for the generalists at heart.” - Ivan Burazin, Infobip
But, as PJ Hagerty of DevRelate pointed out, DevRel is maturing and some companies now have established career ladders: “One of the interesting things that has happened over the last few years is that DevRel has a career path…Now we have specialists and focus areas.”
Developer Relations Backgrounds
Having a wide range of responsibilities also means developer relations professionals come from a diverse set of backgrounds. Of the seven people I spoke with for this article, each had a very different path into the field.
Katie Miller went from sales development to product marketing to working as Google’s Global Lead for Cloud Developer Events before settling into her current role with Asana. “I came to Developer Relations and Developer Marketing by a combination of curiosity and good timing,” she told me. “By showing commitment to learning about developers and developer technology…I was able to build trust and credibility.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Lorna Mitchell describes herself as “a very experienced software engineer with a blogging habit.” Her background as a software developer and consultant helped her build the tech and people skills required to empathize with developers.
“I started out by delivering some training about coding skills and software architecture, then I gave a conference talk (or twenty), wrote technical magazine articles, and eventually some books. After some years of doing part-time tech lead roles to fund the community lifestyle, l accepted my first official DevRel role.” - Lorna Mitchell, Aiven
Others I spoke with came from marketing, sales, user experience development, and product development backgrounds. Many were also business owners or startup founders at some point along their career journey.
Ivan Burazin pointed out that his background as a business owner has made him into a “jack of all trades,” which is perfect for DevRel. “As I have been an entrepreneur for most of my career, I’m used to doing a bit of everything all the time,” he said.
The Skills DevRels Need
Interestingly, there isn’t a college degree or bootcamp (that I could find at least) to prepare people for a career in DevRel, so almost all of them are self-taught. Often, developer relations professionals have cobbled together a unique mix of skills that make them a fit for the role.
That said, four skills kept coming up in my conversations with DevRels for this piece:
While none of the DevRels I spoke to said that you have to have a technical background to break into the field, they all said that empathy for software developers is essential. “People connect not just with what the technology can do for them but a relationship that shows trust and compassion for the developer experience,” Wesley Faulkner, host of the Community Pulse Podcast told me.
As you might guess from the list of job responsibilities above, developer relations professionals need to be strong external communicators. Whether it’s giving conference talks, writing blog posts, or listening to community members, almost everything in DevRel revolves around communication.
Because developer relations sits at the intersection of so many disciplines and departments, they often act as a mediator for internal communications as well. When describing his workday, Wesley Faulkner said that “It’s a constant dance between prioritizing my work and objectives and influencing others and their execution.”
3. Comfort with Variety
I’ve already alluded to how wide-ranging developer relations can be, so if you’re the kind of person who likes jumping between many different types of work, it could be a great field for you.
“I’m a generalist through and through,” Justin Johnson told me when describing why he likes DevRel. “The different types of work I do varies a ton and I get to interact with so many people in the organization.”
Drew Harris echoed the sentiment, “there is never a dull moment,” he told me. “One minute you are amplifying an amazing API product to external developers and then next you are setting up an external hackathon.”
Lorna Mitchell agreed, adding that while her role can be very technical at times, “mixing it up with the creative aspects of working with all of the content types and for so many different audiences keeps it interesting!”
4. Learning Mindset
Having an interest in learning lots of new topics is probably critical in most technology roles, but it stands out in developer relations for several reasons. Katie Miller’s background in European History and Higher Education might not appear to set her up for success in developer relations, but she was able to build a successful career “by showing commitment to learning about developers and developer technology through research, asking loads of questions, active listening, and showing how my skills and experiences add value.”
The tech tools and APIs that developers are using change really quickly, so if you want to stay current in this field, you’ll need to commit to learning new things all the time.
What’s Hard About Developer Relations?
“The hardest part of DevRel is still just staying on top of everything. There are so many amazing technologies and philosophies around tech and work that I wish I could learn them all. Sadly, there isn’t enough time.” - PJ Hagerty
Some of the same attributes that make DevRel so fun also make it challenging. Besides keeping up with an ever-changing technology landscape, the variety of tasks can also be a big adjustment. Many of the former software engineers I spoke with specifically mentioned how they miss having time to focus on one product or project at a time.
“I do sometimes miss the certainty of my previous engineering roles,” Wesley Faulkner told me. PJ Haggerty added that software development is “a closed system in that you are focused on completing a single task or goal - unlike DevRel where you have many plates to spin all at once.”
Another point that several people mentioned was that it can be difficult to show the business value of developer relations. “You’re often doing work that is hard to tie directly to revenue,” Justin Johnson told me, “leadership has to really see the value of building out the DevRel team.”
Similarly, developer relations departments are usually small and interdisciplinary, so it can be hard to carve out a good space for the role.
“As DevRel overlaps, Marketing, Engineering, and Product, and if the borders between these departments are not well defined, you can find people intentionally or non-intentionally stepping on each other’s toes, which just makes that job harder.” - Ivan Burazin
How Do You Get Started in DevRel?
Despite the challenges, there is a growing interest in developer relations and a growing number of companies are hiring for it. PJ Haggerty pointed out that in the past 6 or 7 years, the position has gone from being undervalued to “one of the biggest growing job fields in tech.”
But, since there’s no set career path or degree that sets you up for a career in DevRel, it can be hard to know where to start. Many of the people I talked to had to develop most of the required skills on their own.
If your background is in software engineering or engineering leadership, you’ll want to work on your communication and community skills. “Find opportunities to participate in and build community, hone written and verbal skills,” Katie Miller told me. “For folks moving into DevRel from engineering, the technical skills are there, so it’s redirecting them to deliver bi-directional outreach and advocacy.”
Justin Johnson’s advice was similar. He said that he favors candidates who “write a blog, start a meetup, build a side project, or contribute to an open-source project.” Ivan Burazin added that you could create or organize events. “They don’t have to be large-scale conferences, just a little meetup would do…this can all be done on [your] own, no need to wait for the experience you can start now.”
Of course, not all DevRels come from a tech background and that’s okay. Lorna Mitchell and Drew Harris said that demonstrating enthusiasm for helping others (especially developers) is a good way to build your qualifications in developer relations.
“You have to have an insane amount of empathy for your audience. Having worked in support, design, sales, product, and other teams through the years really allows you to put yourself in the shoes of a developer.” - Drew Harris
No matter your background, Wesley Faulkner pointed out that “the best thing you can do is know yourself well.” By understanding where your strengths lie today, you can figure out what skills you need to develop to set yourself up for success in developer relations. “Know what you’re good at, see what you’re bad at, and understand where you want to improve,” he told me.
Developer relations is an exciting and growing field. The job is all about empathizing with and lifting up your users, so if you like helping others, you’ll probably find it a very rewarding job.
For example, Drew Harris was really excited about Rapyd API’s series of hackathons (last year they gave away a Porche Taycan). Running these kinds of events and helping good developers get rewarded for their work is just part of what developer relations is all about.
Finally, there are wonderful, active communities for developer relations people on Twitter, Discord, Slack, and more. Katie Miller specifically mentioned how accepting the DevRel community has been. “It is global, diverse and in most instances, aspires to be inclusive,” she told me. “I’ve generally found that DevRel and developer communities aim to bring people together with common goals and interests, and aspire to create space for everyone and to celebrate what’s unique and what’s shared across us all.”
Build a Blog that Software Developers Will Read
The Technical Content Manager’s Playbook is a collection of resources you can use to manage a high-quality, technical blog:
- A template for creating content briefs
- An Airtable publishing calendar
- A technical blogging style guide