Building internal alignment


Ben Gamble

Job title

DevRel Manager




DevRelCon London 2023

In this talk from DevRelCon London 2023, Ben discusses the importance of building internal alignment with other teams in order to achieve success. He highlights the challenges faced by DevRel teams in aligning their goals and metrics with those of product, marketing, sales, and engineering teams. Ben emphasizes the need for DevRel teams to understand the company’s objectives and align their efforts accordingly.

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Key takeways

  • Building internal alignment with other teams is crucial for success
  • There are different challenges in aligning with different teams within an organization
  • Understanding the company lifecycle and its impact on alignment is important
  • Metrics and goals vary across teams and it’s important to align with them to show value and success
  • Being able to attribute success and aligning with different teams’ objectives is key


Kevin Lewis:

Welcome back. I’m going to hand off the stage quite swiftly because I think a lot of us are really, really excited to hear Ben talk about building internal alignment with other teams. So I’m actually just going to hand over the stage and at the end of this we’ll have some time for q and a. Oh, yes, yes.

Ben Gamble:

Thank you. Thank you all coming for my talk. Just a quick agenda, I’m going to run through the usuals of who am I, a bit of what is DevRel because we keep answering the same questions over and over again. A bit about challenges, who we align ourselves to within our own organizations, a bit about company life cycles and what matters to these different companies. Now, anyone who’s known me before will recognize this slide. There is indeed a pun warning, this one is less funny than usual and sadly not as many puns as usual, mostly because this is a shorter talk than I normally give. So quick thing about who I am these days, I kind of go by a technology sommelier at Aiven. My job is to pair your open source Kafka, your open source Postgres, maybe some cheese and some wine along the way.

Mostly to make ourselves feel better about it all. But I’ve worked on a bit of everything and I do mean almost everything from medical device development with kind of diagnostics to MMO games, to all kind of things in between. I even managed to start an augmented reality company on Google Glass about almost over 10 years ago now because now all old and I do make more station jokes in rust than I should do because why not? If you’ve got a cute crab logo. And to that end, what is Aiven? And Aiven is where I work today and hands up, who knows what this is by the way, this is a picture of, so this is the crab Nebula, a famous fun thing in the night sky and this is Pu the Aiven Crab logo if you can see it. And eight and seven of his favorite 11 open source friends.

We host open source software for people so that they have a nice platform to access with one developer experience, one SLA damn simple build because we are way too lazy to make complicated billing. I do actually mean that requires more development than we wanted to admit. And the real thing here is that the stars of the limit with open source data tools. Ye s, the pun was intended. So through that Aju what is DevRel and we’ll have heard lots of answers today and in general what we tend to find is that it is different things to different people. Hands up who’s seen this meme before? By the way, there’ll be a decent amount of interaction. I’m trying to get a bit of a gauge across things because generally part of the problem here is DevRel has different things and we have to kind of engage the fact that we do so many different things.

But the thing about this meme is it kind of died, right? That whole thing of what DevRel was died in about February, 2020 when everything stopped and that kind of attitude that with the people who fly around the world doing things which no one can really attribute that just burning money away in the background has entirely died now, right? The tide has gone out on that whole behavioral kind of modality. And although we’d love to be able to say we just get to go places and do things, I don’t think the people who hold our budget strings will let us do that anymore. Some people, my old team remember when this started to happening? Yes, you remember, don’t you? Yeah. And this is the kind of problem we’re actually facing right now. So what DevRel is keeps changing because there are even books that say what DevRel is health.

Some of them even have references from me in them, which is incredibly strange to me at least. And what you’ll generally find out though over time is that there are many different things. And I want to stress this point that DevRel is not one thing anymore. It has broadened and broadened as more and more companies needed it for more and more different types of products. There are people who sell APIs, there are people who sell SDKs. There are people who just open source software for people to use. There are car companies who want people to bring apps to their platforms. There are people whose job it is just to bring ecosystems together. And what this basically means is that there is no one story anymore that fits. And relating to developers is a series of skills and it looks like one thing until you actually have to dig any level of depth into it and realize we do lots of different things for lots of different peoples, even if we’re on the same team.

So let’s talk about some of our biggest challenges here. And the first one is this problem of a huge remit. We generally tend to own far more than we want to because we are relatively non-skilled people. You start with a bunch of people who know how to code normally and then you add on the ability to talk to people, which those two don’t often go together. It’s actually a weirder skill than it looks like at first glance. And when you go to one of those conferences, which is mostly just people who do mainline development, you realize very quickly what it means to be able to talk professionally and develop professionally at the same time. And go on to that, you then have to add a ability to write coherently, to talk coherently at length and the ability to create accessible content. So you have this ridiculously huge remit combined with a lot of very hard skills here.

We have to be very good at what we do to make other people allowed to access it because if we can’t answer the question we’re asked, we generally lose credibility pretty fast. And we are there to bring credibility to whatever we’re doing. We can learn in public yes, but we still have to answer the core questions of why does this exist, what does it do? How do we make it work If we don’t it kind of ask the wrong questions of what we want to do. The next thing here is tough lagging metrics. In general, everything we do has some level of lag to it, even if it’s a single day in some cases. But more often than not, we’re talking months to quarters to years here. And particularly as Wesley mentioned this morning, it’s about looking at that full-time horizon of we are really looking to try and get long-term impact versus that short-termism and that doubles down to disper percept problem.

We are perceived to be one thing, whereas we are often many different things. So are we developers? A lot of people look snooty at us and say No, I would hard argue that most of us are developers. However, I’d also argue that most of us don’t need to be developers. And it’s that kind of split thing of where we are perceived to be perceived to be a version of our role which lives in someone else’s head. And this means we end up with this kind of dichotomy of what we can do. What we could do and what we should do are three different things and this is where the last and biggest challenge comes in, which is this perception of ROI return on investment. We are quite an expensive team, nearly always, and we have things to do and therefore any team in any organizations needs to show a return on the investment put into it.

This is just the sad reality of the corporate hellscape we live in. This is late stage capitalism. As much as I’d love to change that one, that is one of the few things I kind of have to assume at the start of this is we’re in late stage capitalism, them be the breaks. Let’s make it as least bad as it can get. So, let’s borrow a meme and about where the problems kind of come in. Sorry, I’ve clicked too many times and this is a kind of meme from yes dear again, which is we’ll just copy people, try it, but then someone’s going to try and call us to account cause they’re like, Hey, you’re just buying people beer. What are you doing this for? You’re just running meetups. Are you just having crowds of or friends round to do what you want?

It’s like we dream of doing this, we dream of doing this. If we could get away with it, yes, but it doesn’t work. So we don’t because on average we are here, we have integrity, we have enough integrity to know that if it doesn’t work we probably won’t keep doing it. So this might’ve happened once or twice, but this is a perception problem again of things we are perceived to do. We appear to have host big parties and do cool stuff without seeing the logistical nightmare, which it is to book a venue at short notice for a number of people as yet undetermined. And when you start dealing with all these problems one after another, you realize that actually running a meetup is far harder than shipping a software project. I will take one over the other any day of the week and have repeatedly don’t get wrong. Meetups work, which is the most depressing thing is that they actually do work and they do cause ROI. If they didn’t, we might not have to do them anymore. It’s like cold calling. It’s depressing that it works.

So why worry about alignment? Well, other than the kind of fact of if we don’t have alignment against things like other people are worried about it too. So let’s roll back to 2017 in DevRelCon and what leadership wants from Rey Bango. And the fact is some of this should sound quite familiar to what I’ve just mentioned. I found this after I started writing this talk and was like, yes, validation. It’s not just me. The first thing to do is check what the crazy person. And then more recently there was this video that came out last week. So quick hands up, who’s seen this video by the way, about let’s say half to a third of the room. So I reached out to Ali and asked if I could actually reference this and she was pretty happy with this, me talking about it. And she kind of lists a series of points and I’m going to go into this in a little bit more detail because it’s quite current in our space and it’s quite important to hit certain issues I think because if it’s the current talked about point, I want to reference it.

So she references about 10 points of which these are kind of a subtle summary of some of them break down to multiple things, but this is kind of the headline she had as the key bullet points. And just to highlight a few here, these ones are the ones I’ll highlight as direct alignment type issues. It’s hard to measure what we do because we’re not aligned against metrics. The company fully understands we measure things, we all do, we have to. But if they’re not what other people are measuring is that really going to be useful to us? There’s a cargo cult type reason to hire DevRel hands up here who’s in a venture funded startup who here is in a private company which is not actually public yet and who is in a large public company. So actually quite an even spread to be honest, which is quite interesting because the metrics change depending on where you are quite a lot at a small venture-funded place, particularly pre series B, you have very different metrics to those people in the late stage world like me where it’s like, hey, you’re heading to an IPO train here.

You’ve got to show these numbers to post IPO of you’re really talking about positioning more than anything else or trying to just create enough buzz to keep things going. It’s a very different game again. And the other thing that kind of came out of the video was these blue ones. Now these are kind of alignment against what you want. So these are what I would call not internal alignment, but intrinsic alignment. Are you aligned to what DevRel is really doing? Is what you are doing aligned to what you want? Now this is one of the things I’m not going to go into too much detail about, but just to quickly hit on it, there’s a certain point of where if the deral team you’re hired onto has no clear remit, you are not going to know what you do when you walk in the door.

This is going to be problematic because there is no way to align against no remit if you don’t know what you’re measured on, you can’t hit those outcomes. You will always end up in this kind of positive problem where you cannot win because you do not know why you are there. They do not know why you are there. There is no easy plan to success and hands up who’s seen this kind of five dysfunctions of teams slide. So this is me being a management consultant from long ago talking the corporate nonsense we used to talk about for silly amounts of money and not get paid it. And yes, it’s very fun watching the partners get paid and at the bottom of the tree you just talk this stuff. But the key thing here is that you see these dysfunctions happen when you have this kind of ambiguity and low standards applied and an absence of trust where you get brought in, you just get given the thing you should be doing.

Like make community happen is a line I have literally been told more often than I want to admit, grow as a developer community, get us customers, do this, do that. And I’m like with what and for what purpose. And the answer is reasons. These kind of things happen in these kind of dysfunctional teams and high performance is a mis sonoma, but this is the official thing so I’m just going to use it as is for now. So you get this problem where if you can’t have certain levels of alignment, and the key one here is the attention to results, which is kind of what I’m using as a proxy to alignment because you have to align against a result that matters to the people who actually hold either the purse strings or at least you are actually reporting up to. So who do we align to?

So just a quick show of hands, who here reports up to product? A few people who reports up to marketing who reports up to sales? Awesome, always. I want to talk to you afterwards. I’d love to hear your story. It’s not that I think it’s going to be bad, I just want to actually hear it because it’s rare. Everyone keeps talking about it as a thing, but I’ve not seen it very often though I have reported to sales before also who what’s up to engineering out of interest. Cool. Also, I want to speak to you. This is the first time I’ve actually run into people who report to engineering and who’s somewhere in between.

We need support more often anyway. So what influences and drives these folks? So when you start talking from a corporate level down, like the things they want to do come from books like this. They want to move numbers from zero to one. They want to show big steps forward and they read books like this to communicate how to build decks. Barra Minto was famously of the McKinsey School of Thought. This is something called the Pyramid Principle. Actually a really good book to read if you’re building lots and lots of slide decks. I don’t recommend building lots of slide decks, but if you have to genuinely a pretty good book. But it also shows how these kind of corporate ideals are laid out and how the thought processes behind them are structured. Anyone who’s worked with me before has probably heard me talk about this stuff before at length.

And the other thing they do read a lot of is things like this. This is what they try to achieve, this kind of crossing the chasm is the archetypical marketing and sales manual of the day. It’s not bad. I don’t particularly like a lot of its ideas, but it’s kind of useful to know about what people are actually driven by and those things that drive them. And here’s the kid critical one, who here has an okay R to meet who’s had an OKR to meet at least in the last couple of roles. This is the book that drove it all and it’s really the most important thing this book says is on the front page. Everything beyond that I believe is superfluous. It is one of those has the best TLDRs ever. And the rest of the book is basically just telling you how not to write things down.

Say don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this. This is my actual standby summary of the whole book. So what that means is though is that these people have different books to us. Their mindsets are not in the same place we’re at. And if we’re not going to speak the same language they’re going to and we don’t have the same words to describe things, we are going to struggle to get our message across, we’re going to struggle to align up against them. Because if they’re saying I need to see a return on investment on EBITDA on quarter three so that we can hit some earnings projection and that is a little alien to you or you don’t know where you contribute to that, you’re going to go, okay, but I just enabled five and a half more million developers. Then they go, and what does that mean to this number?

And then you’re going to go problematic. And that’s not to say we can’t have an answer to that, but it is to say that we need to be aware that if we’re answering the wrong questions, we’re going to end up in a very bad place. So let’s look a bit about the company lifecycle here. So this is a kind of very, very simplified version of the company lifecycle, but it kind of has a couple of key points here, which is that you develop, you go out to the wild, you grow, you mature, and ideally you don’t decline. But late stage capitalism says things happen and it’s not fun if growth is a must. If you’re not growing, you’re declining because steady states aren’t allowed anymore. But it’s a sad fact. And back to that kind of venture funded thing, this is a kind of little projection of what’s happened recently when it comes to funding and it mirrors the actual economy pretty closely because venture funding is used as a kind of way to peg how pension funds are doing where they put a lot of their money.

And if the pension funds are declining like this, that pretty much means the economy is just slowing down, which means there’s less money to be got for everybody. Now what this means is we’re artificially being pushed to this decline box in the corner which leads to this drive to reinvent. And who here has had artificial change forced on what they’re trying to do in the last few months because of perceived slowdown or Oh no things are going wrong, we must do more of things. And I’m using generic terms here because it’s pretty hard to tell what they want us to do next, but it’s inevitably it is not what we’ve done before or it’s what we’ve done before faster with less resource. And this is kind of like a running theme when your leadership do not really have a handle on product market fit or do not have a handle on why growth is slowing down or are beholden to funders who don’t care.

The big one is being beholden to funding people who don’t care. And this is actually very important to understand if your startup or scale up is basically backed by certain types of funds, you are often going to be in this state regardless if you know it or not, there’s very little way to avoid it, but it basically means that you have to try extra hard to make sure that any metrics you give are clearly shown to be valuable. We’ll talk a bit more about what those are in a minute and this is where we go, how should we measure ourselves? So the real problem here is that we have many different metrics. We should be measuring as many as we can get away with. So who here measures page use on their various web properties? Most of the room. So Google analytics, whatever else. That’s good.

It definitely gives us an impression of how some of the things we’re doing work. Who here measures signups Most of the room. Again, does most people work in some sort of SaaS software level stuff? Yes. Or APIs or some equivalent with signup equivalents. Cool. I definitely recommend measuring those because they mean a little bit more than page views though it does depend heavily on what metric you care about most. And then activations. Yep. And this is just a Datadog screen because inevitably these live somewhere else in your system because an activation is also a number of thresholding problems. And what you consider to be an activation will rapidly change how people view you because we have a free tear and free tears are lovely until they cost too much money. And this is one of they ever classic dichotomies of do we run a free tier?

Do we accept the fact that we now have users who are actively costing us money rather than making us money? Will they make us money in the long tail? Who knows? Because very few people have ever done the math on this. In my previous company when I was CTO, I killed a freight tier for this exact reason. It was great for attracting smaller customers, we got some return on investment, but over time we realized it rapidly became a sink to maintain and it turned out to be the only kind of way we could even survive was to flip our whole business model to only focus on the top five companies in our space as our target customers. Fundamentally, free tiers, cost, money, activated users might be a good metric, but it also can mean they’re going to cost you even more money in the long term.

So if you’re just growing a big community of people who don’t pay you money, are you just creating a problem which is going to bite you even harder down the line? This is something to be aware of because every single customer who’s not a paying customer costs you money in free to play games. This is the kind of whales and minnows mentality where you are basically carried by five or less percent of your whole consumer base. And what this means is that if you need the large population to support the small population, this is a great metric. But as soon as these things go out of whack or you don’t have a way to check if this is true, you’re going to end up with a simple fact of someone’s going to come round at the end of some quarter or year and say, how much are you burning on AWS resource or equivalent to support these people who you don’t have an answer for. And if you’ve been attracting them for a long period of time, it looks like you’ve built up this lovely long tail of useful people, but actually they’re a net negative and they’re already happy with what you’ve got. There’s no way to monetize them anymore because trained them to think it’s free. And there are various companies have this problem, so I’m actually on time. Nice. So I did not expect that. So the next thing here and the scariest one is revenue. Does anyone have a strict revenue target?

Now, I don’t recommend necessarily having a strict one, but in Salesforce is where most companies end up measuring everything somewhere. We are all accountable to Salesforce whether we like it or not. Eventually it almost seems like everyone eventually reports to Salesforce regardless of who you are or what company you’re at. Secretly the CEO share of Salesforce seems to run the world. It does feel that way at times. But hey, the important point to note about Salesforce is every single one of the activities that the company does eventually roll up here and a report will be generated which will determine the fate of half of the organization one way or the other. If you don’t have a handle on what that means, you often will end up in the dark to know what you’re actually trying to achieve. And this is where those pieces to align on.

And who here has internet points calculated? So I’m going in common room and things like this as internet points because one community score is fundamental in our world is basically internet points. That’s what we count and it’s an amount amalgamation score and it’s important, don’t get me wrong, but how it quantifies is very dependent on what a community is worth to you and if it’s even worth activating to begin with. So we are measured by all of these things because of leadership will look down and say, well that’s a hard number, that’s a hard number, that’s a hard number. Did it go up into the right? And if the answer is yes, did it go up to the right heart enough? Did it tie into something down the line that mattered to them? And if you don’t control that narrative, someone else will control it for you.

And you don’t have to be able to understand every single number all the way through. You don’t need to understand corporate accounting. But it is very much worth understanding that if something is going wrong, you need to be aware of it quickly because most often than not, it’s not directly something you can control but or even spin to your favor. But you do need to be aware of it. So we have to be able to attribute success. So let’s talk about alignment again. So in products, there are loads of things we can do. We align against friction logs, we align against use case examples, we align against ideas in the backlog and numerous other things. We basically become the thing that tells product where to go next because without there trying it with people. And in the other point here is develop experience and develop relations are two different things and they do not quite equal each other.

We often end up doing both and that is a mistake because they’re two separate roles which require more people. And if you end up doing both roles yourself, you are going to be split and your metrics are going to split badly and it means half the time you’re reporting on marketing outcomes, half the time you’re reporting on strict users score metrics and you’ll end up with metrics that do not make sense in marketing. It’s actually a bit more simple. You make content, you raise awareness. I’m using MQ ls here because that’s what they’ll count. And analyst relations and things like this are actually something we are really helpful for because we have that user experience. We are customers of this product. We have tried it, we have used it, we have felt it. We’ve often tried what the competitors are doing because if we don’t know what else is out there, we can’t even form an informed opinion and we’re there to make that storytelling piece real.

The other big thing is they can promote our stuff, right? If they’re going to be sending out mailers with content on it, put our stuff in there, it’s often better than what they’re writing, at least in my opinion, right? If you’re going to send out SDRs, give them content you’re not ashamed of, right? We don’t want to ruin community spirit by sending out substandard stuff because we are the ones who will feel it. So make sure we’re actually getting the people on our side and getting them online with us, along with us aligning with them. Now for sales, we end up being the truth sales, right? I love working on sales calls because I get to be there specifically for the customer, not the rep. A line I’ve said many times is I’m here to make sure the rep doesn’t get too happy. And I’ve said that a lot of times because my job is to be the absolute truth sharing in the conversation.

I’m happy to send them away as long as I can send ’em to the right place. It doesn’t matter where you are, it all works out quite nicely if everyone’s happy and engineering, my main thing here is to be the angry first customer. We are there to kick the, to make sure no one else gets hurt. Shipping code is not your goal combined. It ends up looking like a funnel, but not one of these. It’s more like one of these. So this is the customer success funnel, but we slice away the outside and rule out some sales cut away decision making and onboarding. We have sales engineers for because you’ve got to understand your funnel because that’s what’s going to drive us. We live at the very top and the very bottom. We enable people, we bring people in and understand our company objectives. Every venture funded or inside large BM os, you have to understand where you’re going and what you’re actually reporting up to because what is Devereux at the end of the day? It’s many things, potentially too many things, but definitely too many things to do on our own and that’s the key point here is we have to align because we have to be part of the team to succeed.

Thank you.

Kevin Lewis:

Awesome talk. We have five minutes for questions. Does anyone have one? There’s a question here.

Audience member 1:

Thank you for your, yeah. Anyway, thank you for your talk. You talked about getting rid of your free tier. How did that change what Dev DevRel was doing once you took the free tier out and do you have advice for folks in that space?

Ben Gamble:

When I did this, I was the founding CTO of the company. We had the equivalent of one person working in DevRel. We re-tasked them entirely to basically product marketing, very technical product marketing at that. It was literally right technical material to demonstrate how to integrate this stuff, show why it’s a cool thing.

I often think that product marketing and DevRel are often two sides of the same coin. You basically sometimes do one thing sometimes to the other. If you do it really, really well, you can pretend to be either. But in general what happens is we need specialists these days because of everything has becoming increasingly pointed so that although I occasionally get asked if I want to move to product marketing internally, very strange times right now, I know. But that it is the sort of thing where there is a definite overlap between the two roles, at least in some companies, others really doesn’t make sense.

Audience member 2:

Thank you for an excellent, really important talk. I think one of the things is that I think from the other talks that I heard today is that people may have to involve some of the really important kind of potential roots for surviving in today’s kind of environment. Like pivoting from one of those things to maybe product if sales is getting their marketing slashed or their budget is getting slashed or whatever. So we have to be flexible. I think that’s one of the very important outcomes of these things that you’ve presented today. One of the other things I find is particularly in large companies who should know better is how to build actual understanding amongst basically people who should know better. I mean even in companies where the core product is either software, content, data delivered programmatically, how to actually make people at the top really understand the importance of it and who people who are not native, I mean personally I think they shouldn’t be in position, but they are.

Ben Gamble:

So they have a classic, often known as the Peter principle of the idea of you get to a point of your incompetence level and that’s where you stay after the point of you just become incompetent at your role and particularly for that kind of c-suite problem of they’re so far detached from the realities of what’s going on. I have before solved this by basically managing to get FaceTime in front of them and being almost their vision point to what’s going on on the ground. The closer you can get to executive buy-in, you can often be that true speaker to them as well. Treat them as if, because fundamentally they report to revenue, they report to shareholders and they report to a few others, particularly in large companies. If you can basically say, this is the story we’re telling and make that compelling, you basically play deel at them. This is the internal version of devel, which happens way more often than we want to admit, where you basically have to teach people what your own product does and often what your own story really is and the larger the company is. This is more of your role than often you often think it is. You’re often more internally facing than external facing. I’d love to talk more about this. This is what my first job turned into.

Kevin Lewis:

Excellent. Then well, a huge round of applause for Ben.

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