Lead image for What is a Developer Advocate?

What is a Developer Advocate?

A few years ago, I started speaking at developer-focused conferences regularly. For me, it was a fun way to meet people, find new engineers to recruit, and share helpful information with the community, but along the way, I met my first developer advocates.

As more businesses create tools, APIs, and services aimed at software developers, jobs in Developer Advocacy have become more and more popular and finding candidates has gotten harder and harder.

In a recent article, Mary Thengvell, head of Developer Relations at Camunda, said that in the past year and a half, the job postings in her newsletter have gone from 40-50 per month to over 200.

For a role that is increasing in popularity so much, the job description is still somewhat unclear to many people. So what is a Developer Advocate, really? To answer this question, I went straight to the source and spoke with six different Developer Advocates about their jobs. I talked to them about the role, its limitations, and where it fits in modern software businesses.

So What Exactly Is a Developer Advocate?

The role of a Developer Advocate can be tough to pin down.

It involves a wide variety of activities, from traveling the world giving talks to maintaining documentation. Despite the nebulous nature of the job, there is a common core goal to all Developer Advocate jobs: Developer Advocates help software developers be successful with their particular technology.

According to Joel Lord of MongoDB, “a developer advocate is really there to act as the liaison between the developers that are using the product and the product team that is building the solution.” They function as a bridge, teaching users how to get the most out of the software and relaying their feedback to the company.

“The scope of the role has grown over time and varies from company to company,” Richard Moot of Square told me. But the responsibilities generally fall under three categories: community engagement, company promotion, and creating content.

1. Community Engagement

The developer community is a Developer Advocate’s raison d’être, so it’s no surprise that community engagement was mentioned by everyone I talked to.

Communicating with the developer community can be done using a wide variety of tools, including Slack, Discord, forums, Stack Overflow, or in-person meetups. “At the end of the day … focusing on the users and community will ultimately be the best investment of your time,” Samina Kabir of Decentology told me. “This promotes honesty and trust between the users and the company.”

2. Company/Product Promotion

Depending on the company, promotional tasks may fall more under the purview of marketing, but in many cases, promoting the company’s product is a significant part of a Developer Advocate’s job.

Pre-Covid, this often meant attending and speaking at in-person events.

According to the 2020 State of Developer Relations survey conducted by Hoopy, 23% of DevRel professionals reported traveling outside their city a few times a month for work, and 30% reported traveling outside their city once a month. In the post-pandemic world, this has been supplanted with online events and creating reusable digital content.

3. Content Creation

Finally, creating content is huge in the world of Developer Advocacy. The 2020 State of Developer Relations survey showed that for 61% of DevRel professionals, content development is one of the top two ways they spend their time at work.

This can mean recording videos, writing technical blog posts, working on documentation, or creating example applications. Content is typically geared toward getting developers up and running with the technology as quickly as possible, and answering any questions they have about it along the way.

What About Developer Relations? Developer Marketing?

A few different terms are often thrown around when discussing this area of work. Developer Relations (DevRel), Developer Marketing, Developer Evangelism.

But are these all just the same thing?

The line can be murky, and can differ depending on the company.

According to Mandi Walls of PagerDuty, Developer Relations is a blanket term that defines the practice that “helps a company focus on the experience of the users of their product.” A variety of roles can fall under the umbrella of DevRel, including Developer Advocates, Developer Evangelists, Technical Writers, and more.

Duties that one company might assign to a Developer Marketer, another might give to a Developer Advocate. The structure of the organization makes a difference in what is expected of the various roles.

Who Do Developer Advocates Work for?

One of the biggest questions that companies face when starting a developer advocacy program is which department does it belong in?

The answer to this question is not straightforward. It differs depending on the company, and often comes down to the budget source.

Joel Lord told me that “it is somewhat of…a challenge to place DevRel in an org chart because most developer advocates need to interact with so many different departments.” Since the job touches so many others, it can end up being under Marketing, Product, Engineering, or even its own distinct organization.

Alex Lakatos said that ideally, “the role would sit somewhere under Product or Engineering” in order to act as a bridge between the two.

Depending on who developer advocates report to, their goals may vary widely. For instance, if they report to marketing, they may be more concerned with views and clicks than more nebulous things like the usefulness of a blog post or the quality of the community. This can be problematic, as the goals of marketing and those of developer advocacy should probably be different.

“Marketing has discrete goals,” writes Burke Holland in the DevRel Salon. “Sometimes they are MQLs (Marketing Qualified Leads) and sometimes they are actual sales quotas. As soon as you assign a product metric to an organization, you remove their ability to form relationships with the consumer.” Fostering trust with a community can be difficult if you are also trying to sell them something.

What is it Like to be a Developer Advocate?

When I asked about the biggest challenge and the best part of being a Developer Advocate, the results were unanimous. The best part of the job was also its biggest challenge: Every day is different, and you have to wear a lot of hats.

“Sometimes, it can be hard to juggle all the responsibilities,” Joel Lord said. “On the other hand, that is also one of the best parts of the job.” Mandi Walls agreed, saying that “the best part is that there’s always something to do, and every day can be different. That can feel overwhelming, too.”

What Makes a Great Developer Advocate?

Like any career path, DevRel isn’t for everyone. Someone could be a brilliant engineer, but a terrible Developer Advocate. So what makes a good Developer Advocate?

It comes down to three things: empathy, a passion for sharing knowledge, and having a technical background.

1. Empathy

In the 2020 State of Developer Relations survey, empathy was listed as the top skill a person needs to be successful in developer relations.

According to Alex Lakatos of the Interledger Foundation, “prior experience as a developer is not really required, as long as you can empathize with developers and their problems.” You need to be able to relate to your users, understand their pain points, and be motivated to help them out.

You work for your employer, but your main goal is to ensure the success of the users and advocate for their best interests.

2. A passion for sharing knowledge

As a Developer Advocate, a huge part of your job involves teaching developers how to use your product. A great Developer Advocate relishes making video tutorials, writing blog posts about new features, or answering questions on Stack Overflow. They have to put themselves out there and share what they know.

Two people reviewing code together

That doesn’t mean they’re all extroverts, but when it comes to code, Developer Advocates must be able to connect with others. Adam Gordon Bell of Earthly Technologies noted that he isn’t particularly outgoing, but after starting a developer podcast, he “found the process of communicating about software development to be lots of fun.”

3. Some technical background

It may be obvious, but to do well in DevRel, you need to have some sort of technical background.

This of course simplifies some parts of your job (like building example apps) but it also makes it easier to empathize with your users.

According to Mandi Walls, it may be hard to jump straight into DevRel at the beginning of your career, but “mid-career folks who have a bit of experience with workflows and tools … can better relate to other users.”

You don’t have to be the world’s best software engineer, but you should have the ability to convey technical knowledge effectively. Joel Lord put it like this: “One of the key skills to have is the ability to distill a complex concept into simpler terms.”

Not all engineers would make good Developer Advocates, but all Developer Advocates should have some degree of engineering ability.

Tips for Job Seekers

Does this sound like a dream gig to you? If so, you may be wondering how you can get in on this trend. I’ve met dozens of Developer Advocates over the past couple of years, and I’ve noticed that the best way to prepare for this career is to build things, create content, and be active in a developer community.

Build things

Since great Developer Advocates are also engineers, you should prove that you can learn and teach new technologies. Richard Moot suggested that anyone interested in this field get involved in some open source projects, which is a great strategy as it also gets you involved in a community (more on that in a bit).

Similarly, in Alex Lakatos’s blog, he suggests that aspiring Developer Advocates build things. “What things?” he asks. “It doesn’t really matter. The goal is to pick up something new, experiment with it for a few days, and then tell other people what you did.”

Create content

Since such a huge part of a Developer Advocate’s job involves writing, one of the best ways to get relevant experience is to write about coding. Alex Lakatos told me “Most engineering organizations have to beg their developers to write for the company blog. Be that perpetual volunteer!”

This was a sentiment that was expressed by several people I spoke with. Mandi Walls admitted that this approach can be time-consuming, especially if it’s something you are doing in addition to your day job. She suggested that job seekers create “short pieces on a blog aggregator like Medium or Dev.to” if they’re strapped for time.

By the way, even if you don’t plan on becoming a Developer Advocate, writing about technical topics is generally a good career move for developers. It can reinforce learning, help you find clients and jobs, and provide a helpful record of your accomplishments.

If writing isn’t your forte, create some other type of content. Make videos about coding, code live on Twitch, or try speaking at a meet up or other event.

“A developer advocate can do about five different things depending on the day and role,” said Alex Lakatos. “Pick the skills you feel comfortable with and try to practice them.” Nobody is going to be stellar at writing, speaking, community building, event organizing, and building demos, but if you can hone your skills in two or three of those categories, you’ll be in good shape.

Be part of a community

A big part of Developer Advocacy involves community building. If you want to be a Developer Advocate, it is a good idea to get involved in a community that you care about. You can do this by contributing to open source, answering people’s questions on Stack Overflow, or creating educational content.

As Samina Kabir put it, you should seek to “show [your] ability to selflessly network or support others.” If you are active in a particular technology’s community, it can be a gateway to a career opportunity. It is definitely not unheard of to convert participation in an online community into a job offer.

For Hiring Managers

Not every company needs a Developer Advocate, but if yours does, there are some important things to consider before jumping in. If you are a manager considering hiring a Developer Advocate or DevRel team, how do you make that decision, what sort of person do you choose for the role, and how do you measure their success once they’re on board?

Why Hire a Developer Advocate?

According to Adam Gordon Bell, “If your company’s target market is developers, you need a Developer Advocate.” Having that link between the company and outside developers can  make a huge difference in adoption of and satisfaction with your product. With a Developer Advocate, you can expect benefits like an increase in sign ups, valuable feedback from the community, building brand awareness, and cultivating a robust community.

When should you hire a Developer Advocate?

Everyone I spoke with agreed that if your company caters primarily to software developers, you should hire a Developer Advocate as early as possible. As Samina Kabir put it, “having a good developer advocate as early as possible really shapes the future of your product or service.”

According to Richard Moot, some companies “skate by for a while by having some passionate engineers who are doing ‘DevRel’ without knowing it.” It may be tempting to do this to save money, but it is better in the long run to start hiring your DevRel team ASAP.

DevRel “should not be regarded as a sprint, but rather as an endurance run,” and having Developer Advocates on board early can be essential in setting up your long game.

What to Look For in a New Hire

When looking for a new Developer Advocate, “companies should be looking for people who are spending their time uplifting communities or other developers,” said Samina Kabir. For companies with an established product, they should look to their product’s power users for potential Developer Advocates. These power users are ideal hires as they already know the product, the company, and the community well.

As far as other skills go, you probably won’t find one person that’s good at everything that DevRel entails. That’s why it is generally better to have a team rather than just a single Developer Advocate. “It’s good to have a variety of folks on a DevRel team,” Mandi Walls suggested. “Folks who can code, folks who can give talks, folks who write well.” This will ensure that you can communicate effectively with as wide a user base as possible.

How to Measure Success

Every role in a company needs objective, measurable metrics, and the role of Developer Advocate is no exception. But Developer Advocacy is so focused on community building, its success can’t be measured the same way you might measure the success of marketing campaigns. So how do you figure out how well your Developer Advocate is doing their job?

Having a great DevRel team may have the effect of increasing revenue, but that shouldn’t be how you judge its success. Mary Thengvall says that DevRel teams’ success should never be measured by sales, as it “changes what should be a genuine relationship into one that revolves around money, which isn’t sustainable.”

On the other hand, DevRel’s goals need to align with company goals, or else its value to the organization is questionable. According to Thengvall, “any of the tasks that DevRel should be doing need to be directly tracked back to the corporate goals.”

In Thengvall’s opinion, Developer Advocates’ success should be measured by “DevRel qualified leads,” which allow Developer Advocates to form meaningful relationships with community members, then connect them to other departments when appropriate. For example, they might identify somebody that would make a great addition to the team, so they refer them to recruiting.

However you choose to measure success, it’s important to remember that numbers will never tell the full story. As Steve Pousty of VMWare says in the video below, “not everything of value can be measured.” In DevRel, there are a lot of valuable things that can’t be easily measured, like how much developers trust you or how your community makes them feel. Delivering that hard-to-quantify value to developers while simultaneously demonstrating measurable value to the company is a balancing act that DevRel teams must perform daily.

Conclusion

It’s an exciting time in tech. New companies are being started, new technologies and tools developed, and entirely new conceptual frameworks (like web3) are gaining in popularity. More and more companies are looking to hire Developer Advocates, so if you’re interested in becoming one (or hiring one,) the time to get started is now.

Whether you’re an aspiring Developer Advocate, a current one, or just interested in the topic, I would love to hear your thoughts! Find me on Twitter to continue this conversation.

Karl Hughes

By Karl Hughes

Karl is a former startup CTO and the founder of Draft.dev. He writes about technical blogging and content management.