Digital Developer Relations: Past and Future

I work in Developer Relations, or “DevRel”, and 2020 was a strange year with travel restrictions that meant that the entire industry did everything online, or digitally. I see this as a very positive progression of the way we work as DevRel professionals, and I understand that might be controversial, but I’d like to back up my position so hear me out (and then let me know what you think!).

Digital is an obvious way to do DevRel. Where are the developers? On the internet, on StackOverflow and reading, chatting on Discord and Twitter. To meet all those developers, where they are at, is a developer advocacy superpower, not a second-best option for the year where we couldn’t travel.

Digital DevRel is Inclusive

In 2020 I interacted with a whole lot of new people and new types of people than I normally meet in a year. People were joining “local” user groups from all over the world to hear about a specific topic they had an interest in. People were joining their first meetups or conferences because they can’t travel in other years either and so this year they can be part of the crowd, just like every one else. My friend in New Zealand gushed to me about how many events were online and how much she’d enjoyed being able to access content that is normally locked up in a one-time-and-place-only offering. And no, recordings from things that are supposed to be in-person are not the same thing.

There is work to do on figuring out the event and content formats that work well, but I don’t want to tell all those new voices that I’ve talked to that we aren’t interested in them any more now we’ve got our “proper” events back. We all belong in this industry, including people who won’t ever be at an expensive conference with me. As a side benefit, content delivered digitally often works pretty well asynchronously too. A recorded talk that was played back with a lively text channel alongside it is a decent conference experience AND a decent catch-up experience! Building content this way is inclusive across time as well, because someone new to this topic in two years’ time can still access my talk as a first-class citizen at the moment they need that content.

The much more inclusive nature of digital working makes a difference for DevRel as a group of people as well as for the communities we serve. Without the travel component that is “normal” in these types of roles, many more excellent humans could contribute to our efforts to reach and support more developer communities. We wouldn’t have to change roles if life brings us reasons to travel less or work more flexibly.

Digital DevRel is Impactful

Without the noise and stress of travel, my personal experience was that I had a very impactful year. I spoke at digital events and the preparation time was the same but there was no jetlag/travel overhead and I was able focus much more and create more thoughtful and meaningful content, code and support. As a side effect I was much more available to my team and my communities, and more effective in what I could produce.

The digital world enabled a new depth to connection. I would interact with someone at an event, who became part of my network on Twitter, joined a Twitch stream, participated in other events I was at … I genuinely felt that I built more valuable connections this year than I do when I’m standing by a table on the other side of the world giving out t-shirts, because of the echoes of the digital connection and how we can surface ongoing touchpoints on those platforms.

Digital interactions are built for scale – StackOverflow is a great example of one type of interaction; Twitch is a great example of a totally different type of interaction. This year of being forced to think about designing content for new platforms I hope will encourage us all to keep thinking hard about this stuff and keep on learning.

Written content is the gold standard of how to share information. Words need relatively little bandwidth to deliver, and can convey a lot of information; this really matters to a large portion of the world. Words can be read aloud, translated, or simply displayed bigger and with better contrast … the increased reach because of how versatile words are should never be overlooked. Perhaps most important of all, we all know how to scan written text to find the piece of the puzzle that we need. Developers in particular are very advanced skip-readers and will pick-and-mix bits of three different tutorials to fill the gaps they have in some completely unrelated application they are building. If you want to reach developer communities, all of them, everywhere, now and in the future: begin with the written word. That didn’t change this year and isn’t changing any time soon.

Digital DevRel is Intentional

There’s no substitute for in-person connections, and we can and should still come together on occasion. But let us be more intentional about when we choose to have many people travel to one place. The world is changing and many of us have made some conscious lifestyle choices (when did you last use a disposable plastic carrier bag?), it is time to bring that into our work lives too. A lot of what we do can be delivered asynchronously – the in-depth conference workshops in particular would be better as a distance learning series with some real-time support available.

There is so much that DevRel can learn from established open source project practices. Communication is one – mailing lists, commit history and IRC channels can cover all the knowledge transfer that are needed, and they all scale up to include as many people as they need to. It allows people to contribute to the conversation with a much lower barrier of entry than flying lots of people to one location. Let’s make the most of the in-person events, but let’s make fewer of them and find ways to connect to one another and our communities beyond the patterns we fell into by default, that we inherited from sales teams who only wanted to reach the top brass. Developers are today’s decision makers, and that’s why Developer Relations is a rapidly growing profession.

Developer advocacy is about meeting developers where they are, and enabling them to reach their goals. Digital is how we reach the developers hanging out “on the internet” and I am looking forward to more inclusive, impactful and intentional encounters with all of them in the future.

Also published on Medium.

One thought on “Digital Developer Relations: Past and Future

  1. I love everything in this post and I really appreciate you sharing this to the world, Lorna. These are exactly my thoughts; this year was surely terrible in many aspects, however, it gave us the opportunity to have another look at outdated practices and things that don’t make sense anymore at this time, considering the distributed nature of our audience and the climate challenges we’re facing. Less travel, more asynchronous content and well-thought online events that can include everyone in the conversation – that’s my wish for the post-pandemic future :)

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