And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?

David Byrne, Talking Heads Once in a lifetime

The road to a career in developer relations can be winding and unexpected. Many of us didn’t start with the goal of becoming a technical evangelist, developer advocate or a community manager. I’ll be sharing my story here and encourage you to share yours.

Learning to swim

My journey began not with a CS degree, but with synthesizers and sequencers. In college I  would spend hours banging on my keyboard, tweaking, copying and pasting bass lines, drum beats and synth melodies. The hours would fly by as I wrote music on my Mac, not knowing I was in a state of flow.  Upon graduation, I travelled, got a teaching credential and spent four months as a recruiter where I failed miserably. Only then, did I realize, doing creative work on a computer brought me the most joy. With that insight, I set out to secure an entry level tech support job.

With persistence (50 resumes out) and a fair bit of confidence (I could figure this out), I got in the door of a small software company.  Before long, I was walking customers through menus, reboots and installing updates. Looking for new challenges, I taught myself web design, JavaScript, databases and server-side programming.  This new knowledge eventually led to a  position as Content Engineer at mBed, a startup with a multimedia plug-in that competed with Adobe Flash. I spent my days building demos to showcase our technology to developers and pushing the creative boundaries of the technology.  On reflection, was I doing developer relations without realizing it?

I left mBed and spent the next four years consulting on web development projects with my last gig leading to a full time position at Santa Clara University. I was the lone developer customizing and extending a content management system I’d built for the law school. It was a comfortable 9 to 5 life, but I felt isolated without daily interaction with other developers.

Toe in the devrel waters

Photo by Alex King on Unsplash‌‌

My feelings of isolation stopped when I attended my first tech conference, Adobe MAX. It was thrilling to connect with developers and hear from experts about new tools and technologies. Who were these scions on stage giving live coding demos? Sometimes product owners and engineers, but often developer evangelists.

I returned home and attended my first tech meetup and before long I’d volunteered to help the organizer.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d taken my first step into developer relations. I wasn’t an employee and no one paid me to pitch in at monthly meetings. I’d found my own small way to help the developer community.

The growing popularity of iPhone and Android marked the next phase of my entry into developer relations. All the meetups and developer events at the time focused on native iPhone or Android development, but I wanted to explore tools that offered ways to build apps using JavaScript or held the promise of “build once and deploy to all devices”.  In Sept 2010, I started the Bay Area Mobile Meetup (BAMM) and learned about securing meeting space, sponsors, speakers and engaging with a diverse group of developers. It was an exciting time and I loved landing talented speakers and bringing people together.  I stepped down as the organizer after a few years, but am proud of the community we built.

Taking the plunge

One month after starting the meetup a recruiter contacted me about a mobile developer evangelist role at PayPal.  I found the email from the recruiter in my gmail with the job description attached.  Boy, I did not meet the qualifications.

The email includes this funny exchange with my wife

Me: Wow... this new meetup is opening doors already!!!

Adena:  Awesome!  This is what you needed!

Me: Yeah, but my guess is a lot of travel and wouldn't work for our family.
But I'm going to call and chat just to see what it's about.
It's nice just to be asked. ;-)

Famous last words! I met with the hiring manager for coffee, with no expectations. I’d never considered becoming a developer evangelist, but knew I wanted a change and was willing to explore the opportunity.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to take the chance. Like my first tech support job, I needed confidence that I could learn to be a successful developer evangelist. It was exciting, scary, and exactly what I needed. Yes, there was travel, weekends and evenings at events.  Thankfully, I had a supportive partner through it all.

I enjoyed the work and had great team mates at PayPal, but it did have the drawbacks of a large organization. I found the company focused on merchants and customers with developers a distant third. Improvements to APIs and the  developer experience went unaddressed and it was frustrating.

Back in the startup pool

Photo by Mick De Paola on Unsplash

Looking for an opportunity to have a bigger impact through developer relations, I left PayPal and joined the mBaaS (mobile back-end as a service) startup StackMob. It was fun to be part of a small team building technology for mobile developers.  Demonstrating how to model a database backend in minutes using your mobile app code felt like “magic”.  

Like many startups, StackMob did not survive and the team was aqui-hired by … wait for it … PayPal.  I won’t dive into the missteps and lessons learned (I think it’s worthy of it’s own blog post).  A recruiter from Xero contacted me as it became clear StackMob wasn’t going to make it. Lucky for me, I'd heard Xero’s customers were “fanatical” about their product at a conference where their CTO was speaking.  I thought to myself, this might be the company for me.

Swimming in international waters

I joined Xero as a senior developer evangelist for North America in 2013. Reporting to a manager halfway around the world in New Zealand was an adjustment, but I found with video and chat we stayed in close contact.  I discovered that working in a distributed team was possible with good leadership.

Developer relations at Xero was different from my work at PayPal and StackMob. The work went beyond driving awareness of our APIs, but managing the influx of companies looking to partner with Xero. Xero had established itself as a global product for accountants and small businesses - developers saw an opportunity to grow alongside us. The developer evangelists team at Xero on-boards new partners, advises them on best practices, reviews their integration and launches them in our marketplace.  

During this period, I got to wear many hats including evangelism (videos, blog posts, events), business development (discussing with developers the benefits of partnering with Xero), support (engaging developers in community forums, social media and via email) and engineering (creating our first Java SDK).  After about a year, we hired our second US developer evangelist. This gave me an opportunity to  mentor Vince Lo, our new hire. Vince is a great guy and grew immensely during his time on the team and eventually applied for a product owner role at Xero. It’s always tough to see a teammate leave, but in this situation I was proud that our time together had contributed to his career growth.

Riding the Xero wave

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

My experience mentoring Vince sparked a desire to lead. During a reorganisation, I put my name forward to manage the developer evangelist team.  My first month in the new role was rough with two developer evangelists leaving the team. The departures were unrelated to my new role, but it can be unnerving when your first one-to-one turns into a resignation conversation. Thankfully, the team pulled together and delivered critical work around launching our new marketplace in early 2017. By the first week in February, we’d successfully backfilled our open roles.  

Once the team was at full strength, I set about working through our “workflow debt”. As a distributed team we’d drifted in different directions, how we did our work had evolved but not documented well.  Using confluence, videos and weekly meetings, I worked with the team to standardize what we do and how we do it.  

I also started internally evangelising and educating others at Xero around what the team does and importantly doesn’t do. One of the biggest challenges leading a global team is keeping the team focused on our top priorities. Developer evangelists are extremely knowledgeable and empathetic individuals. Sales, business development and others love having a developer evangelist as their wingman (or woman) in meetings, but I’ve found this can get out of hand and conflict with our top priorities. I’ve found communicating guidelines on when to bring us into a conversation has been important when managing the team.

Once the team was on sound footing, we started ramping up the evangelism work.  We kicked off  our first XD (Xero developer) roadshow in 2017 and online developer challenge (hackathon).  We’ve continued these each year with the goal of increasing registration and attendee numbers.  Last year, we held our first webinar series which saw twice as many registrations as we'd targeted.  

On the engineering front, the team took on the challenge of creating OpenAPI specs (swagger docs) for our multitude of APIs.  Our APIs predate these types of specifications so we reverse engineered them from our docs. These specifications are now used to generate our SDKs. The team is learning about managing open source projects on GitHub and loving the challenge and opportunity to engage with the developer community through code.

Once in a lifetime

Looking back on how I got here, my journey wasn’t mapped out, but a series of stepping stones.  Each step offered new challenges and when they did not exist I found a way to create  them.

Thinking about a career in developer relations, but don’t know how to start? Ask yourself, what can I do in my current role or on my own to participate in developer communities.  This could be the spark that grows into an unexpected and rewarding career in devrel.

For those not familiar with the iconic Talking Heads ...