Today’s development tools have never been more powerful. However, that can also mean that they’ve never been more intimidating to pick up and learn. That’s where developer advocates come in. They help their fellow developers get the most out of specific software by creating content and communities designed to help others learn and grow.
Equal parts creator and engineer, Netlify Director of Developer Experience Cassidy Williams works to help active users make the most out of Netlify’s platform. On the latest episode of our podcast Decoded, Williams provided a behind-the-scenes look at her unique approach to developer advocacy.
What Is Developer Advocacy?
According to Williams, the role of developer advocate goes by many titles, including developer evangelist, developer relations, and developer experience engineer. At the end of the day, the role is largely the same regardless of the title: educate engineers at their level of expertise, but with a marketing bent. As she explained:
“We need to sell things to people, but engineers don’t really like salespeople. They like other engineers.”
In some organizations, developer advocacy is a part of the marketing function, while in other organizations it sits in engineering. However, the growing importance of the role means that it often has its own department separate from the two groups, which is the approach they take at Netlify. This allows developer advocates to gather and share insights that both marketing and engineering can use to optimize their work.
“Developer advocacy is the best user research you can get. It’s the best way to build relationships with developers who may be making product decisions or talking to their manager.”
While not a marketer per se, the developer advocate toolbox is similar to that of most marketing departments, allowing the advocate to leverage everything from blog posts and explainer videos to Twitter posts, memes, and TikTok. To engage her audience, Williams relies on the oldest marketing trick in the book – humor – to create in-jokes within her community. She shared:
“Every sentence is an opportunity for a pun, for a rhyme, or for a one-liner that someone will find funny. I think that by leaning into the jokes, the memes, and the lightheartedness, it shows empathy for what developers go through. You’re vulnerable enough to say, ‘I also struggle with this and I’m smiling about it.’ It humanizes this very serious technical field.”
The Challenges of Developer Advocacy
While by no means celebrities, the public nature of developer advocacy means that advocates can develop passionate fans themselves. Williams says this can create one-sided relationships – the fan to the creator – that make it difficult for the creator herself. These parasocial relationships leave the audience overinvested in a relationship with the advocate, which can blur lines when the advocate is at events like conferences.
“It’s a challenge for quite a few people, including myself, because people expect certain things from you because you’re so nice on the internet. It’s not something, as dev advocates, that we’re always trained for.”
Williams says that the key is to build a community, not just an audience. The difference is that the audience interacts with the advocate, where a community interacts with itself, with the advocate as the facilitator.
“A community enables relationships with each other where it’s just everybody one-on-one with you, but everybody working with each other. You build a space for them where they can feel safe, where they can feel heard, where they can be included.”
Another challenge that developer advocates face is proving their value to management and technical colleagues. Unlike sales or marketing, the content a developer advocate creates is focused on the long term, making it difficult to measure the impact of a program.
“There is a constant problem of how to measure DevRel. It’s something that’s so valuable and the numbers show it; for example, whenever my team creates a lot of content about serverless functions, we see serverless function usage go up. However, we can’t quantify it well besides the fact that we show that it works.
“Finding a metric is a challenge because engineers measure things in a different way, like how the product is improving, how many lines of code you’ve written, or how many pull requests are completed. It’s much fuzzier than that.”
Check out this week’s Decoded podcast to hear more from Cassidy Williams about how to build meaningful developer communities through developer advocacy. Listen and subscribe to future episodes.