code-for-a-living November 30, 2020

Does your organization need a developer evangelist?

What does it take to attract developers to your organization and to create an environment internally where they feel empowered to do their best work. One of the most successful strategies is to employ a great developer evangelist, which we’ll shorten to DevEv for brevity’s sake. In an era of remote work, DevEvs might be…

What does it take to attract developers to your organization and to create an environment internally where they feel empowered to do their best work. One of the most successful strategies is to employ a great developer evangelist, which we’ll shorten to DevEv for brevity’s sake. In an era of remote work, DevEvs might be needed more than ever — advocating for the needs of programmers, ensuring collaboration across business units, liaising with external partners, and creating a positive environment. 

Attracting great developer talent is difficult, as demand continues to outpace supply in many areas. And while individual companies compete for talent, it takes the work of many companies to create the products and services people love and need in today’s world. Cross-company awareness and collaboration becomes increasingly important in our connected world.

In the piece below, we’ll dive into more detail on what developer evangelism means and how people working in DevEv do their jobs. Then we’ll explore the criteria a company should consider before investing in a DevEv program and how to know when your organization is ready to benefit from this practice.

What does a developer evangelist really do?  

So what does that look like on a day to day? Christian Heilmann’s free resource seems like a good starting point: ”A developer evangelist is a spokesperson, mediator, and translator between a company and its technical staff.”

The role is all about improving communication, internally and externally, to support the creation of good work. As Jon Chan, an engineering manager, who has been with Stack since 2013 and has done a lot of developer evangelism for the company put it: “A developer evangelist is someone who promotes and futhers the company agenda in the public eye of the community.”

On a tactical level, this may involve a wide range of duties from improving the internal developer experience (advocating for new tools or processes, supporting internal and external meetups, protecting developers’ time for and facilitating their open source contributions), a lot of content marketing starting with blogging and speaking engagement for developers or sometimes even joining the conversation online, but extends to managing educational materials around the company’s products or APIs. 

Let’s look at some practical examples and then discuss if it’s the right time for your organization to invest in developer evangelism. 

How can engineering teams connect with a company’s user base and surrounding global tech community? Take a look at how developer evangelists like Nathaniel Okenwa at Twilio often host webinars to share valuable insights for professional development and growth.

Even a simple tweet, like the following GIFY tutorial from Ashley Alicea, senior developer advocate for games at Unity3D, can communicate a message about your team’s engineering culture. In this case, a tweet makes a simple statement about the benefits for developers. But it also opens the door to deeper, longer lasting interactions by offering a gamified tutorial where curious coders can level up. 

Specific tactics, like webinars and interacting with developers using your product, are only part of a successful DevEv experience. As Chloe Condon, senior cloud advocate at Microsoft explains, the ability to create impact in a DevEv role begins with the right mindset.

“Every day is different,” says Condon. “Pre-COVID, you could catch me flying around the globe giving talks about Azure, hosting events at the Microsoft Reactor, writing blog posts, hosting office hours, and attending meetups (sometimes while singing). I spent a lot of time writing talks, hosting webinars, tweeting, and recording podcasts. Pre-2020, I hosted a monthly, camp-themed meet-up. I miss these events a lot. 

The shift to new styles of working during a pandemic has been dramatic. “These days it still varies. I work on our academic team targeting students. That means a lot of live streaming, video content brainstorming sessions, blog writing, and live presenting at online conferences. I’m still hosting webinars and making tutorials with a big focus on video content since that’s most people’s main way of communication for now.”

While being a broadway singer is not a requirement for developer evangelists, being a great communicator is. Chloe Condon in a duet with Misty robot.

Here are some thoughts about introducing evangelism to your engineering org.

Should you hire a developer evangelist?

If you are a company in need of deeper connections with developers, there are at least a couple of ways to go about it. While it’s common to see developer evangelists at big, public tech companies, not every organization can afford a dedicated DevEv team. For smaller organizations, you can hire a full-time developer advocate or you can establish a culture of developer evangelism among your team. At Stack Overflow, we don’t currently have anyone with the job title advocate or evangelist, but from the start it’s been part of our culture. We spoke about this with Jon Chan and David Haney, two tenured engineers and team leads who have been with the company for a long time and see themselves as sometimes wearing a developer evangelist hat. “There are companies who benefit from developer evangelism as a position, others benefit from a culture of dev evangelism,” explains Haney. 

Chan points out that, if you are a company loved by developers, you may not need a full-time position. “Companies that aren’t tech companies or known to be traditionally involved in the dev community could probably benefit more from such a role. A lot of them might have really interesting API or services or data you wouldn’t otherwise get access to.” But of course, these approaches are by no means mutually exclusive. There are brands like GitHub and Twilio that were beloved by programmers but also had developer advocates before they were at massive scale. For them, it was worth the investment to spread the word about the tools and services they offered.  

If you are an insurance provider or a bank not traditionally associated with the latest tech, it might still make sense to invest in your reputation through evangelism, but would be a tall order for your developer team to do this on the side without any full-time support. “Companies like that don’t start out with the same brand recognition in the tech space,” says Chan. Developer evangelism is easier for companies that began by selling developers tools and had public APIs early on. Talk with your technical staff about what areas of your stack would lend themselves to a more playful and public presence before diving into the deep end of DevEv.

If you decide to go the in-house route, you should enable your team to take the time off to prepare content and meet up (virtually) with the community at large. As far as finding people to take on the task of evangelism is concerned, those individuals will often show an interest already. “I think the most common way to come into this role (or to carve it out for yourself ) is management noticing that you have the communications skills, networking skill and an interest in taking on a role of advocacy,” says Chan. “It often is an additional responsibility, not a full on sidestep into a new role. ”

When is developer evangelism not the right approach for your company?

Regardless if you are hiring a person or enabling your team to become dev evangelists, you need to be thinking about what you want to achieve. Even though developer evangelism and developer advocacy are the more widely spread terms, another one often used in the context gets at the core of it: developer relations

As someone who is often on the receiving end of developer evangelism, Haney stresses that introducing this role means getting used to a new way of talking about your product.  Avoiding developer evangelism is better than doing it badly. “If you hire an evangelist, you need to give them the agency to speak on behalf of the company. Developers are very good at seeing through anything that is not authentic.” DevEv involves a way more unfiltered advocacy for a product than traditional marketing, including admitting that you don’t have the best solution. What you want to avoid is what Haney describes as the hammer problem. “If you are trying to sell hammers, everything looks like a nail. That is poor evangelism for sure.” 

Some of the best evangelism includes sharing learnings, and yes, even failures, in talks or blog posts. If a company is not ready to commit to this level of transparency, DevEv should probably wait. It’s only when their developer evangelist (or the people doing the evangelising at the company) begin to talk about the product openly that they will  build meaningful relationships with the public. “Posting your solution in a forum and not responding to feedback is not evangelism,” Haney notes.

Dion Almaer puts it nicely in a blog post, bringing it back to the term developer advocacy.  

“At first people think that you are advocating to developers, but it is also very important to think about the other connotation. You think about being an advocate of the developer.

What does this mean? It means that when you are in a meeting with your product group, you are their mouth piece. What do they think of the products? The APIs? What are they asking for? You get to almost be an outsider on the inside. That is the power of the developer advocate role and why it can be such a fun one at companies.”

The potential in 2020 and beyond

In 2020 advocating for developers has started to include a more holistic approach of them as not just employees but human beings and the groups they represent. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront inequalities in our society and injustices that exist on our planet, the full extent of which many of us did not previously recognize and realize. 

“What I love most about this role is that you need empathy to be successful,” explains John Coghlan, developer evangelism manager at GitLab. “You need to be able to understand and relate to other people — and deliver what they need to be successful. My passion has always been to create welcoming communities that provide opportunities for people to grow, explore their intellectual curiosities, develop new skills, and find happiness at work.” 

Developer evangelists have the position to create pathways for understanding of the human experience. They are in a perfect position to foster inclusivity and feeling of belonging in organizations to encourage a welcome space for everyone. Chan, “I am excited about developer evangelism developing in the industry, because almost all companies have a stake when it comes to developers.”

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