How to advocate for developers
Developer advocates are key to building and engaging with technical customer communities. Contributor Josh Aberant explains their role and the special skills they’ll need.
I don’t need to tell you that the cloud and other enterprise technology is a core part of the modern economy. The work of building the systems that power our businesses is a major driver of employment and other growth. Indeed, there are 3.8 million software developers today in the US and 21 million globally.
Numbers like these are a big reason why the business of supporting developers with infrastructure and tools that help them do their jobs is a significant market in its own right. I’ve written before about the unique challenges of marketing to developers.
Although there’s no one-size-fits-all way to effectively reach developers, some best practices are clear. One of those is finding the right person to be the face of your business in the developer community. But who is that person? And as a marketing leader, what do you need them to do?
Advocacy, not evangelism
It’s not that developers actually hate marketing or need to be handled with kid gloves. It’s more that they’re skeptical and accustomed to marketers doing a pretty poor job of relating to their needs. So let’s begin by positing that at a minimum, an effective developer marketer is someone who understands how developers work and actually listens to what developers say.
And that need to listen as much as talk is why businesses like mine have settled on the developer advocate as a major part of our developer marketing strategy.
By the way, that’s in contrast to another common approach, the developer evangelist or technology evangelist. Semantics, perhaps, but advocacy and evangelism aren’t quite the same thing. To my mind, advocacy is about facilitating developers’ work and representing the needs of the developer community back into the organization, while evangelism is more akin to standing on a soapbox and preaching a particular technology and problem-solving approach. Put yourself in a developer’s shoes: Which would you rather experience?
Community at the core
As of this writing, LinkedIn’s Jobs section says there are 1,317 open positions in the US for developer advocates. Developer advocates are as diverse as the company, the product and the type of developers they engage. There’s one plain-as-day commonality, though, shown in these three example snippets cribbed from various advocate job descriptions:
A developer advocate is someone whose primary responsibility is to make it easy for developers to use a platform … I view the role as having a foundation of three pillars: development, advocacy, and community.
We’re seeking a technical content manager/developer advocate to help us grow the developer community.
This is a position for engineers who love connecting with developers and speaking publicly about cutting-edge technologies … your work fosters a community of developers working with Google technologies.
The emphasis on community couldn’t be more obvious. And there’s a good reason for it. Organic communities of interest are how developers share knowledge, hack problems and collaborate on best practices and design patterns. They’re also superb communal mechanisms for testing claims and spotting issues.
That’s why those 1,317 companies hiring developer advocates — or any other business that’s serious about developer marketing — need to seek out individuals with the knowledge, passion and empathy needed to nurture a community of developers. Without that genuine respect for community, an advocate risks becoming a manure shoveler.
Advocates’ many varied hats
Part of what makes a great developer advocate is understanding how to connect with developers on their terms and work bottom-up, rather than top-down. That means participating and contributing knowledge one-on-one. It also means listening to feedback — the good, the bad and the ugly — and making it actionable for their company.
So developer advocates have to be comfortable straddling two points of view. They need to be passionately, empathetically devoted to building and supporting a developer following, while always advancing the rep and adoption of your product or platform.
That’s easier said than done, and it’s why good developer advocates embody a range of important qualities:
- Empathy. The ability to relate to a customer’s experience lies at the core of all effective marketing. It’s absolutely essential for anyone seeking to play the role of developer advocate.
- Self-starting leadership. Developer advocates need the self-direction and initiative to come up with strategies and tactics to encourage adoption in a competitive marketplace, and drive those to implementation.
- Conviction and passion. Advocates are evangelists who believe in what they’re doing and in the value of the product. If they lack it, there’s no faking it, and developers will see through them instantaneously.
- Practical, technical experience. They’ve got to be able to explain the product thoroughly and answer the tough questions to a developer’s satisfaction, as well as steer product improvements with their own platform team. They may have to generate sample code, libraries, articles, books, training and reference apps used by millions of developers , so it’s imperative that they have the technical skills and baked-in understanding of best practices to do it.
- Communication skills. They’ll need to write code that’s educational and accessible, present engaging and informative content online, on stage or via social media, be comfortable in 1:1 support sessions or huge webinars, meticulously answer questions and interpret bugs, features and issues for internal engineering teams. But they’ve got to speak to the business as well. One of my colleagues described himself a “geek translator,” fluent with tech types on the customer side, but able to translate what they told him so his marketing team could build value propositions that answered their needs (even when the customers didn’t realize they had them).
- Good ears, a subset of communication. Knowing how to listen and really hear what devs are saying, so the advocate can respond in a way that adds value.
- Candor. A good advocate is seen as an honest broker, a facilitator, a real member of their tight-knit community who’s not merely a moderator or curator but a go-to champion on their behalf. Demonstrating transparency and honesty, even about the limitations of advocates’ own products, is invaluable, since it keeps them from being branded as salespeople.
- Appreciation for diversity. The developer community is a lot more than the stereotype of nerds and hackers. A developer advocate who falls back on easy tribalism isn’t going to succeed. That means appreciating and navigating a wide range of languages, cultural backgrounds, places of origin, ethnicities, genders, outside interests, programming language expertise, work styles and time zones.
- Diplomacy. Advocates are sometimes ambassadors, fostering in-house understanding of the dev audience by sales teams, marketing and other stakeholders. Accomplishing that isn’t simple, as it’s about encouraging cultural transformation, not just doing an occasional PowerPoint standup.
- Objectivity. By bringing in an outside perspective, advocates can correct biases or narrow outlooks, internally or externally, but there’s another side to it: They also never lose sight of the fact that everything they’re doing has to ultimately help build business.
Bringing the outside perspective in
These skills are a tough order to fill. Perhaps it’s even enough to make it sound like developer advocates are hard-to-find and hard-to-hire unicorns. And there’s some truth to that — great developer advocates are a scarce commodity.
So it’s easy to see that some might be skeptical that it’s worth the effort. It’s tempting to say, “Don’t we already have developers? Just go down the hall to engineering and ask their opinion.” And by all means — do ask your engineers for their input. It’s a great resource. But don’t confuse it with the kind of input a developer advocate will bring from external developer communities.
That’s because every organization has its own culture and implicit biases (Yes, even the amazing engineers and marketers in your company and mine!). Perhaps we have favored tools and approaches that they believe are more universal than they are. Or we’re so steeped in the difficult challenges of a particular domain space and the intricacies of our products that we forget that outsiders are dealing with more prosaic challenges.
Consider one example. A colleague pushed for us to be part of a conference that some of our team felt was too old-school, and maybe not a fit for our advanced technology. Yet the attendees loved what we put in front of them, because it addressed an unmet need and was presented in a way that spoke to their experience and context. That we were able to do that was thanks to the legwork our advocate had put into understanding and addressing those needs.
That’s exactly the perspective a great developer advocate will bring to the table. And it’s why developer advocacy is a fundamental part of an effective developer marketing strategy.