March 3, 2022
DevRelCon founder and CEO of Hoopy, the content agency for the developer economy.
The developer relations profession has a hiring problem.
DevRel hiring managers struggle to fill open positions, while every week new blog posts share tips on how to secure a first role in the profession. There’s no lack of people who want to get a start in DevRel.
However, the route into developer relations is less than clear. Similar to coveted roles in the creative industries, such as television production or fashion, DevRel relies too heavily on plucking out the handful of people whose unpaid work catches the attention of a hiring manager.
Companies such as Slack and GitLab have publicly shared their internal DevRel career ladders. And to help bring more clarity to the DevRel career path, the team at Vonage is holding a DevRel career path panel on March 9th as part of International Women’s Day.
In the lead up to those panels, Vonage’s VP of Product, Developer Experience and Design Shuba Swaminathan shared some of her thinking around DevRel careers.
Matthew: What are the main challenges that you see for people who are looking to get started in a developer relations career?
Shuba: The first challenge that most people who want to enter DevRel encounter is the fact that there is no standard path. There are multiple ways into a DevRel career. And DevRel is a relatively new speciality compared to things like software development or marketing. So, you cannot go to college and study a major to become a developer advocate.
It’s similar to product management. People tend to grow into these roles, rather than follow a prescribed career path. A lot of people are asking, “How do you get that first break?”
Getting a first job of any kind is hard enough even when there’s a prescribed path. But when there isn’t one and you don’t have existing work experience then it makes it hard for people to know where to apply, what skills to develop, and even how to think about the career.
The second challenge that I see here is that DevRel sits at the intersection of marketing, engineering, and product. So, it’s a combination of hard and soft skills. Someone needs to be able to be technical enough to grasp new technologies and also be comfortable communicating what a product can do for a particular audience.
We can’t expect everyone to have the perfect mix of skills. Some of us are stronger on one side and others on the other. Without a defined career path, it’s hard for people to know where to focus their energies.
And that leads into the third issue. DevRel continues to mean different things at different companies. So anyone applying for a role, or considering a move into DevRel, needs to ask the right questions to find out if the role advertised is the one they had in mind.
Matthew: You’re running this event for International Women’s Day. Are there particular challenges for women in DevRel?
Shuba: Absolutely. DevRel is fortunate to have strong women in prominent positions but tech generally is still a male dominated field where female role models at the top of their careers are still quite rare. Across the world, women in tech face challenges being taken seriously and being treated as a peer. And it is even worse online, where women face a level of scrutiny and, sometimes, outright hostility that men do not. Participating in online communities is a big part of DevRel.
Matthew: What is Vonage doing to help protect its DevRel people in this very public role?
Shuba: At Vonage we have employee resource groups, and we have one for women as well as other underrepresented demographics. It turns out that the most vocal sponsors for this group, the executive-level sponsors, are often our male allies. As a company we have a really strong zero-tolerance policy for unacceptable behavior and very clear mechanisms to address any issues that do arise.
For our DevRel people specifically, Richard who heads up our DevRel team, has given a lot of thought to the challenges women face and has consciously done his best to recruit a diverse team. Promoting safety, both online and in person, is a big part of creating an environment where women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups feel welcome.
Each person’s circumstances are different. Before the pandemic, the dominant idea was that DevRel was all about getting on planes and travelling the globe. That doesn’t work for everyone. Maybe their dog can’t be left alone or they are caregivers. There’s a lot of flexibility and support at Vonage when it comes to such situations.
Matthew: While we’re speaking specifically about Vonage, what does your DevRel career path look like?
Shuba: We have a pretty large DevRel organization at Vonage, with a team of 23 and growing rapidly as we speak. There are five sub-teams within, covering docs, tooling and SDKs, outbound developer advocacy, community, and start-ups.
Within each of these different sub-teams, we have a career ladder, where people can progress up the chain. But the really neat part here is these groups allow people to move laterally to explore their interests. Maybe you came in as a technical developer advocate, but you’ve always wanted to try public speaking. On our team, you have the opportunity to try different roles by joining a sub-team on a temporary basis to see if that’s something you’d like to do longer term. If you do want to pursue this longer term, internal transfers are an option, not just within the DevRel team but also to other teams within Vonage such as development, sales engineering, support, or product management.
Matthew: Engineers often talk about how it seems odd to promote someone who’s really great at engineering into management, where they don’t do engineering anymore. Can DevRel people at Vonage progress in their career without taking on people management?
Shuba: Absolutely. We have two parallel career paths, one where you can grow in seniority and influence on the technical track. And the other is the management track.
Just as an excellent engineer may not want to manage others, we have a technical track where DevRel people get recognized for their growing developer relations expertise. We call it a technical track but that doesn’t mean we recognize only engineering skill. Instead, it’s about becoming specialized in some aspect of DevRel and expanding one’s sphere of influence.
Matthew: What is Vonage doing and what could other organizations do to bring clarity to the DevRel career path?
Shuba: First, we need to acknowledge that the path to a career as a developer relations advocate is not a straight one. There is no single path that leads to this outcome, right? You can come here from many different backgrounds. And that’s actually a really great thing in the DevRel world. For example, our PHP developer advocate has a background in theater.
If you were to just strictly go by a resume, we would miss such excellent individuals. So, the first thing is to keep an open mind because DevRel people come from many different backgrounds and that variety is actually an asset.
Second, is that how you structure a DevRel organization matters. In many companies the DevRel teams tend to be small and the DevRel role really broad. It means different things at different companies. If you cannot set clear expectations for someone coming into the role as to what their job entails, then this leads to mismatched expectations, where the person coming in thinks they’re going to be doing a certain job, but the day-to-day on the job turns out to be something that’s completely different. Set clear expectations and articulate what success looks like in very specific terms early on.
Finally, having a published career development framework that set outs the advancement opportunities goes a long way to helping people know what their future could look like. And if there are skills that they need to learn, you give them the support to learn those skills, to move their career where they want to go. So, I think overall, taken together, it provides clarity around what DevRel careers could actually look like.
Matthew: One of the problems we’ve had in DevRel is that organizations expect to have a single developer advocate who is a strategist, technologist, writer, witty raconteur, and always on a plane.
Shuba: This may be the case at startups given their product portfolio and company stage, but will be very different from what developer relations looks like at Google or Slack. The market that you’re serving is different, the company you’re working in is at a different stage of maturity, your product maturity is very different. So, Google’s career path isn’t right for every team. It behooves each company to define a career path that makes sense for their product, their state, who their customers are, right?
But the good news is that there is much more clarity now around this topic. And even if one company’s experience doesn’t precisely match another’s, we can still learn from each other. And that’s what we’re aiming for with these panel discussions on March 9th. We’ll have women from around the world describing their path into and up the DevRel career. We’re not saying you’ll be able to apply exactly what they’ve done to your own career but it’s only by sharing our stories that we can provide inspiration to the next generation of DevRel professionals.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Vonage is running an online event on DevRel career journeys on March 9th. You can see more details and register here: