There’s a hot new job role in cloud and enterprise vendors called Developer Relations, or DevRel for short, but what is it about?
“I always call it marketing for developers,” says Eddie Zaneski, Manager, Developer Relations at DigitalOcean. “There’s definitely a large group of people that will hate that I say that. But at the end of the day, that’s what DevRel is.”
“I like to describe the role as having three pillars,” he says. “Three Cs: code, content, and community. Code is maybe open source projects, or quick starts examples. Content is blog posts, tutorials, talks, that kind of stuff. And then community is working with people in person or online, maybe Twitter or Stack Overflow.”
Matthew Broberg, Advocate and Editor at opensource.com says that in practice the implementation of DevRel has been far from consistent. “DevRel, in theory, is the intersection of three disciplines: engineering, marketing, and community management,” he says. “In practice, DevRel applies to a wildly popular set of job titles with wildly different expectations across different organizations.”
“On a good day, DevRel fills one or more gaps in a company to connect them with technical consumers of their projects and products,” Broberg says. “On a bad day, DevRel is a term used to hire people with large Twitter followings and ask them to do too much all at once until they inevitably hatequit or burnout or both.”
Mary Thengvall, founder of Persea Consulting and author of The Business Value of Developer Relations, says DevRel is really about managing the relationship between groups. “There’s a phrase that I always go back to,” she says, “To the community I represent the company, to the company I represent the community, and I must have both of their interests in mind at all times.”
Rebecca Fitzhugh, Principal Technologist at Rubrik agrees. “While there is certainly a marketing component when representing the company to the customer and community, it’s equally about representing the customer to the company,” she says. “Our DevRel team brings feedback from our customers to the product and engineering team in order to drive a better developer experience against our product’s APIs.”
Organizations looking to create a developer relations team should carefully if such a team is really necessary. “If product is talking to marketing, who is talking to engineering who’s talking to sales, and everyone’s working together, you don’t necessarily need a developer relations team,” Thengvall says. “But there are so many companies these days that are Business to Developer that just don’t understand those concepts.”
In many cases, the presence of a developer relations team indicates that the marketing function is broken. Using developer relations to glue back together the shattered fragments of an integrated marketing approach is likely to do more harm than good. If developers are the customers for your company’s products, you just want some good ol’ standard marketing, not developer relations.
But for those organizations for whom developers are an influential group that aren’t necessarily the main purchasers of the product, a developer relations team could be just as valuable as an analyst relations team, and for similar reasons. Building rapport with this group can put your products on the inside track for purchase, bypassing many of the complex hurdles of enterprise sales. Developers can also be a key source of insight about how your product actually gets used inside customers. Getting baked into the internal code pipeline can make a product sticky and hard for competitors to dislodge.
“If you are spinning up a DevRel team, there’s a good chance that you already have a deep backlog of things to do,” says Fitzhugh. “It’s important when you provide a clear strategy with tangible milestones that can be measured. Otherwise, with so much to do, it’s easy to get lost in activities that aren’t as impactful for the customer or the product.”
Franziska Hauck, Community and DevRel Expert, suggests that the people you choose to hire plays a vital part in the success of setting up a developer relations team. “Only hire empathetic people,” she says. “They should have a good understanding of what devs have to deal with every single day. They need to be communicators, mediators, and helpmeets.”
As with most things, understanding what you’re trying to achieve is the key to success. Setting up a DevRel team just because everyone else has one is an easy way to waste a lot of money on something pointless, or even harmful. A half-hearted and poorly supported DevRel initiative that gets shut down within six months can damage relationships with an influential group and directly affect product sales. Getting it right, however, can help to get your offering to the top of the consideration pile.