Dev rel in the time of coronavirus: Jessica West


Jessica West

Jessica West

Coronavirus is having a profound impact on how we live our lives and do business. Developer relations is no different.

In this series, dev rel leaders from around the world will tell us how they’re adjusting to a world without travel or even in-person meetings.

This time it’s Jessica West from Launch Darkly.


Matthew: Okay. Jess, so you’re head of developer relations in LaunchDarkly. Hello.

Jess: Hello.

Matthew: Whereabouts are you today?

Jess: Thanks for having me. I’m in Seattle in my home office here.

Matthew: Okay. I’m in my home just as well. I wanted to talk to lots of people in developed relations because we’re going through a slightly unusual scenario right now. Obviously it’s going to affect developer relations. I wanted to talk to people such as yourself who are running developer relations teams to understand how it is impacting all of you. Tell me about your team, like the size and how they’re distributed and kind of you know, what your focuses are right now.

Jess: We have four people on our team, five including myself. They all have different specialties that they work on between, you know, code and working on integrations content, and a lot of writing and working with the community, and different meetups and then road warriors.

Jess: Then we’ve got a little bit of someone kind of helping fill the gaps in everything. Everybody’s got their own skill set and specialty that they’ve focused on. With that they’ve all kind of come together in like, a transformer is what I like to imagine it as. Like everybody kind of coming together as all one big team, which is really great. I think traditionally, for developer relations that’s worked, because everybody’s just gone, they’re in their little silos, but we come together for group projects and they go out and conquer.

Jess: Now here we are, coronavirus time. Things have changed a little bit. Our road warrior obviously can’t go out as much because all the conferences have been cancelled. It’s been a lot of chaos, and the past week trying to figure out, well, she’s describing it as like confetti being ripped up, like throwing up like, here’s your schedule, and now it’s confetti. What do you do with that, then, and how do you adapt?

Jess: Now what we’re working on is looking at what we can do for changing some of those in-person contacts to more of our online focus. We already had a few strategies on the roadmap for bringing online communities and trying to integrate everything from the perspective of reaching communities that can’t necessarily go to conferences, and hitting demographics that maybe either are looking at technology on their own time and can’t really do that full time; either going to a conference or reading a blog post or whichever, and how do we engage that type of community?

Jess: What that does is like, that’s basically accelerated so that we have now a full team kind of focusing, looking at that, and taking what we had from our efforts of going to conferences and saying what online conferences are available, what kind of content do we have from conference talks, and turning that into more blog posts, to really rich content that we can then share with the community. Whether that be through webinar, through some Twitch streaming, and a few other things like that.

Matthew: Okay. At what point did you realize that things would have to change? We’re talking about a really rapidly evolving situation. I imagine that people in developer relations seems around the world right now are thinking, okay, things are changing quickly. Our response has to change very quickly. What was the point in which you thought, things aren’t going to be normal for a while?

Jess: Yeah. Ironically, I was on holiday and then came back, and that was, so nine days ago, eight days ago, came back. Monday I just realized it was like, okay, we have to change a lot of things. I think it was where people, and especially within the US, it was like ramping up, but I don’t feel like we had quite hit that peak. Monday morning, it came in and I met with my boss for about an hour. Just talking me through what everything had changed, what we were kind of seeing that the trajectory of, well, one, Trajectory, our conference, and what that was looking like. Then two …

Matthew: That’s the name of your user conference?

Jess: Yes it is. Yeah. Looking at what all these changes, like what the environment was doing and how we could change it. Monday was filled with meetings, I met with all the department heads of what we could be doing for the team, and for them, to help support them in this kind of time of need. There was a lot of brainstorming. Monday was full day of meetings, brainstorming. I met with the team on Monday afternoon and said, “We’re putting together a shifted game plan.”

Jess: For some team members, things didn’t change much to be honest. They’re heavily working in integrations and code, and so they’re still doing the same thing, and just making sure they’re supporting other team members. For others, they’re focusing a lot more on conferences. We had to shift that one.

Jess: We used that effort, and then started talking about what are we doing for online strategy? It was actually really beneficial meeting with all the department heads and talking about what are different ways that we can be creative in working with the community, and giving back to them, whether, and that’s like, relying really heavily on our partnerships, and picking up those separate relationships. Integrations or SDKs that we’re looking at, and how do we double down on that? Then shifting priorities. We started there. That was, I can’t believe that was only nine days ago, to be honest.

Matthew: Right. You described that you have people, or one person mainly, who goes out on the road and goes to conferences and so on. That was doing something for your strategy. That was meeting a goal for you in some way. How are you now going to meet that goal? How are you going to meet those strategic needs without the travel, or is it something that you’re just putting on hold and saying, “Well we can’t achieve that right now”?

Jess: It’s a great question. It’s a little bit of both, honestly. We’re not changing the goal and saying that we, and moving the goalpost, but we’re saying, putting kind of caveat of like, here’s how this goal will not be as achievable.

Jess: We’re doing different things to try and make up for that. Doing online conferences through partners, doing more webinars and pushing out some more content to gain some traction. That’s what we’re looking at. The talks that we were planning on going out and going to those conferences, we’re taking those and putting that in an online format. Then as far as doing conferences, and just kind of helping with the marketing team and booths and leads, we’re working on a really cool thing that we’re announcing I think next week with our marketing department, of doing some online work.

Jess: I don’t want to say too much cause I don’t want to spoil it for the marketing team, but there’s some things that we’re trying to help combat, some of those other initiatives and things that were definitely hurt by the lack of travel. We’ll see. We won’t hit our goal. I mean maybe we will. I’m predicting the Q1 will be hurting for this, and maybe a little bit of Q2, but we’ll have kind of around it, like, here’s some other things that we did to combat that. Here’s some other opportunities that we may not have had before.

Matthew: Okay. You’re taking a lot of those outreach activities online. This brings me onto a question longer-term, what do you think’s going to happen to conferences? There’ve been so many conferences that have cropped up over the past, say, 10 years. We as an industry seem to be unusual in order to keep on top of your discipline, you go to conference. I know that, you know, a dental surgeon might go to one conference a year. That would probably be, you know, in some ways quite academic, but in other ways, it’s a chance to let your hair down.

Matthew: Similarly, accountants might go to a conference every now and then, but they’re probably more likely to keep up with tax knowledge and so on through journals. I feel like we’ve had a lot of conferences, perhaps more than other industries. Without wanting to be harsh, do you think this is going to clear out some of the conferences, and we’ll have a paring back? Do you think software engineers will take a different approach to learning, and perhaps will vendors take a different approach to getting the word out there? Do you think there’s going to be long term effects?

Jess: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that honestly even before this, the coronavirus, I think that we were starting to see that trend anyway. I think looking at how popular things like Twitch has been used, like originally started with for video games. We’ve seen engineers using that as a way to get information out, and started seeing meetups using it as a way to reach other people that may not be able to attend that physical meetup, but they still want to absorb some of the information.

Jess: I think it was a trend we were starting to see already, and I think it’s just going to uptick. If I were looking at a magic ball and assuming that I went, I think that we’re going to see a decline in in-person conferences and an uptick in more of the online activities and what we can look at and learn from.

Jess: I think it’ll be really interesting also to meet with the executives and talk about budget and where we’re spending our money on for our conferences and looking at the lead quality that we get there, versus lead quality that we get through leveraging our own resources at home. Then going to a conference, you know, more once a quarter versus once a month. Looking at more of that budget from a community education side will be really interesting.

Matthew: For developer relations as a discipline, what do you think this means for Devrel? We could be sat here in a year’s time and still be under travel restrictions and so on. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen. So much Devrel seems to be focused on getting out there, traveling, going to meetups, going to conferences. What do you think this means for the broader discipline of developer relations?

Jess: I almost disagree a little bit that that’s the most with developer relations. I think that’s mostly what we hear, so they’re like, the noisy one. I think there’s a lot of developer relations that we know, that we don’t necessarily hear about, that are doing more just really focusing on code and content. I think looking at Google is a good example of a lot of people that we have under developer relations umbrella that are really just pushing out code and content and not traveling as much.

Jess: I think that we’ll see more things from that one, in that respect of really utilizing what skill sets that we have that brought us into developer relations in the first place. I like to call it your Devrel flex muscle, of what are the things that you built up that you said, “This is what I’m going to come into this industry and do,” you know, we didn’t come into this impression that we were going to conferences and you know, hitting up all the boosts and stickers and giving talks.

Jess: We came there because we had experience that led up to it. I think that we’ll be kind of going back to, almost back to basics a little bit before we had the kind of availability of like, BC money that we made have had now.

Matthew: Do you have advice then, for other people in your situation, people who are practicing Devrel or running Devrel teams right now for this specific, really unusual situation that we find ourselves in?

Jess: Yeah, I think there’s a couple things. One: I think it’s important to remember that we’re all humans and like this is, I mean like, excuse my French, but like this shit’s scary right now. You know? It is, but it’s also important that as humans, we know how we can adapt and we can iterate, and we know how to survive.

Jess: It’s maybe a little bit quicker than we’d like to before, but I think as Devrel professionals and leaders, we can take a step back and look at like, okay, how do I face it? How do I iterate from this one? Whether it be onboarding someone remotely, completely for the first time, which we’re doing next week; or changing your program and your plans and just knowing that it’s going to be okay, but you just have to be able to be okay with change and iterating and moving quickly.

Jess: I think that that’s one benefit that I personally feel like I’ve gotten from working a lot of startups, that I’m just used to working in like a very quick change pace. That’s my advice for the ones, just being okay with change and iterate and do the best you can. Just recognize, tell your team that it’s going to be okay, and recognize that they are humans, cause they’re going through a lot of things as well right now.

Matthew: Yeah. Okay. Well thanks very much, Jess. Good luck with your situation. See you around on the internet.

Jess: Yeah, I’ll see you on the internet. Bye.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.