How to make a developer relations team work for your company

Developer advocates take the long view and build relationships to cultivate solutions, support and loyalty.

community building collaboration developer relations

Image: Shutterstock/Narcissa Less

In a quarter-to-quarter world, sometimes the best investment is in building relationships for the long run. That's the approach developer relations teams use: Supporting internal developers and community members to ensure a good experience. These community connections can result in crowd-sourced solutions to problems, loyal users and even new product features.

Raman Sharma, vice president of product marketing at cloud specialist DigitalOcean, said that developer relations covers everything from evangelizing a company's products to developers through content and code to working with users to gather feedback to managing open source aspects of a company's products.

"For developer-first and product-led companies, developer relations programs help complement the self-serve growth engine through content and brand building," he said. "For more traditional sales-led companies, these programs help build bottom-up awareness and adoption so that not just the conventional 'decision-makers' but also the actual users and practitioners of the technology can weigh in on technology decisions."

Building relationships as business strategy

Mary Thengvall, head of developer relations at Camunda, said her work includes community management, developer advocacy and developer experience. 

"We advocate for problems the community is running into and make sure developers have a good experience with our software and our company, which covers ease of use and time to value," she said.

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Thengvall's team also works on building internal relationships at Camunda, an open source workflow and decision automation platform. She connects the community to product managers, customer support teams, marketing, sales and internal developers. 

Her overriding mission is to connect the work her team does to the higher goals of the company. It's harder to quantify the ROI of building relationships in the developer community than to measure other metrics but the benefits are there, Thengvall said.

"Our work reduces churn, creates colleagues and builds a community people don't want to leave," she said. 

If community members feel a strong enough connection to a company, they can contribute new features or resolve bugs, she said.

Thengvall said her team's strong relations with the developer community makes it easier for Camunda to build a better product.

"For a lot of community members, and people using these products, they trust the developer relations team to be the most authentic and most upfront whether or not that means you'll be giving us money at the end of the day," she said.

Her team also supports community members who want to contribute a blog post or develop an abstract to submit to a conference. 

Thengvall got her start in community building at O'Reilly Media, where she talked with readers about other resources the company could provide. 

"That changed into asking: How do we make sure we're doing what's right by people attending our conferences or using our software," she said. 

Thengvall also has written a book on DevRel, hosts a podcast on the topic and publishes a newsletter

Do you need a DevRel team?

Devin Rader, director of worldwide developer relations at Twilio, said not every software business needs a DevRel group. Companies have to consider its product and customers before deciding how a developer relations team can help. 

"DevRel can't really be boiled down into a monolithic function or specific role," he said. "Where the DevRel team sits, in terms of department or org, tells you how its goals should align to the business and what will be seen and measured as a success."

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Products that are most suited for having a developer relationship role are those where the direct end-user of the product is a developer and there is a way for an individual developer to sign up and use the product, Sachin Gupta, CEO of HackerEarth, said.

"If there is no way for a developer to sign up and directly use the product, then there is not a lot that the developer relations team can drive," he said.

Benefits to having a DevRel team

Gupta said a DevRel team can have many objectives, including:

  • Driving signups or trials
  • Driving usage post signup
  • Gathering product feedback from developers
  • Creating a community where developers discuss product issues and help each other with queries about the product
  • Building brand awareness in the developer community

Thengvall said those individual tasks work together to drive these these three central benefits:

  1. Awareness: Community sponsorships, office hours, events and speaking gigs
  2. Enablement: Tutorials, sample apps and developer education
  3. Engagement: Forums, community contributed content and contributor guides

She sees each element working in a virtuous cycle and supporting developer advocacy and a company's profile in the community. 

Rader said DevRel teams also can support the sales cycle. 

"Research shows that developers have substantial influence on IT purchasing decisions in their organizations, so there is great value in engaging with this audience," he said.

DevRel teams also could help with the hiring process. Thengvall also coined the term "DevRel qualified leads,"  community members her team connects with colleagues on internal marketing, recruiting or sales teams.

"The best hires come from community members because they are already aware of the product and the staff," she said.

How to make a DevRel team work for your company

The job market for developer advocates has exploded in the past year and a half, Thengvell said. Her newsletter includes job postings and she has seen the numbers go from 40 - 50 new postings per month to more than 200.

She suggests that companies hiring for this role for the first time be upfront about what they need. 

"If you don't know what you're hiring for, be upfront and tell the candidates that you need someone to come in and build the strategy, rather than trying to sketch out one in advance," she said.

The other big mistake she has seen is expecting the DevRel team to have an impact on sales.

"The end result of building relationships could of course be sales but if there's any expectation of a dotted line to more sales, you'll eliminate any authenticity," she said.

Thengvall said having a DevRel team requires a company to consider and implement feedback from the community. 

"If we don't have any space on the road map for those ideas, I don't want to ask community members for their feedback," she said. 

Gupta said a developer relations team can focus on developers as the audience for company information. 

"Both the marketing channels and the marketing message are different for the developer community compared to any other traditional audience," he said.

Gupta said it's also important to have someone in this job who understands a developer mindset, such as a software developer. 

"This not only ensures that they understand the audience but they are also better able to connect with the community, as developers are very wary of being marketed to directly," he said. 

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