Distributed developer relations


Brandon West speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Brandon West

Distributed teams are increasingly common in tech and developer relations is no exception. But dev rel teams frequently have needs, patterns, and dynamics that are different than their counterparts in other departments.

In this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Brandon West draws on his experience managing the Americas developer relations team for AWS to present ideas on how to manage distributed dev rel teams.


I run the evangelism program for AWS for the Americas region. We’ve got a few teammates here today, which is excellent. And I want to talk to you about how to manage a distributed developer relations team.

I especially want to talk about managing a distributed development developer relations team, where each person on that team tends to travel a lot. I think those two factors can be very deadly when it comes to leading to burnout. So if you don’t know how to manage and mitigate the downsides of those things, you’re not going to succeed when it comes to managing this type of team.

So, I want to start off by asking everyone to be thoughtful about the language that we use to describe these types of things. So what do you think about when you think about the term “remote”? You might picture something like this, it’s far away, it’s expensive, it’s hard to get to, resources are probably a little bit limited. You might think remote controlled, so there’s a lack of autonomy, there’s someone else determining what the actions are like here.

Instead of thinking along those lines, I think that we should start talking about distributed teams. Because what do you think about when you start imagining a distributed system? You think of something that is redundant, it’s resilient, it’s close to the end user. It’s able to be interconnected, but all of the nodes within that network can also work autonomously, and then communicate later to figure out what the source of truth is.

So I want to suggest that we talk about distributed teams rather than remote teams. So when you start having these conversations with your boss or with your team, consider it from their perspective. From their perspective, you are the remote person, they are based where they’re based, keep that in mind.

Why is it important to be able to manage distributed teams?

Grads are at 68% more likely to be interested in remote jobs, so why is this an important thing? Why does it matter if you have the ability to manage a team that’s distributed, and that travels a lot? Well, that’s where the majority of the new jobs are going. And maybe not the majority, but there’s an uptick in the amount of people who want to work remotely.

As we have new developers entering the community all of the time, you also want to be able to hire the upcoming talent, and asking people to move to San Francisco is getting to be a harder sell these days.

Thirty-nine percent of employees say that they spend some time working remotely right now. And I know I just said don’t use the word remote, and then immediately put two slides up that said remote, but this is the question they asked in the survey, so I wanted to make sure I was authentically representing what they actually asked people that responded to these surveys.

And I have sources on where this data comes from available in the slide deck, so you can share, look at the slides later and figure out where this is coming from. And here you can see some of the growth of working as a distributed team. It’s growing way, way faster than people that are working in offices.

It is a unique sort of skill

So this, as a manager is becoming very important, and I actually think that if you are a leader, a VP, a director or someone who’s making hiring decisions for managers, you can’t just be looking for a manager, you need to be looking for someone who can effectively manage a distributed team. It is a unique sort of skill.

Upsides of distributed work

So there are a bunch of upsides when it comes to distributed work. I have notes here with stats that I’m trying to remember. But one of the upsides is that it’s lower stress and you actually get higher engagement from the people who are based outside of the office.

So on average, they tend to work about four hours more per week while maintaining the same level of happiness, which is pretty cool. You also get to be closer to your family. You maybe don’t have to drive through the hour and a half of terrible traffic to commute to the office, wherever that might be depending on where you’re based, or fight through the subway lines or whatever that might be. So there’s definitely some upsides.

Downsides of distributed work

There’s a lot of downsides of working distributed. The working distributed is correlated strongly with a deterioration in peer-to-peer relationships. Now, interestingly, it doesn’t have that same effect when it comes to supervisor-to-report relationships. Those don’t meaningfully change when the manager and the team member are not in the same location, but for peer-to-peers it does.

And I have some hypotheses on why they might be, I think when it comes to communication your manager always has to speak to you, you as the manager have to have consistent meetings with your reports so that they can stay up to date, you can understand where the status of tasks lie, what needs to be done, what are the things that are blocking them.

But those communication lines between team members are not as necessary, and as in many cases, they’re not dictated by the process of being part of that organization. So that is the biggest downside in my opinion.

Now let’s talk about travel too, because when you have a distributed team, and teams that travel a lot, like I said, it’s a double whammy when it comes to potential for burnout.

Upsides of travel

Upsides of travel, and this is kind of, I’m going to interject my own opinion here. I love to travel because I love to see new places, I also love to see some of my favorite places that I’ve been to before. I love the fact that I can use my credit card to earn rewards points, and I travel enough that when it’s vacation time I basically don’t have to pay for anything, like I have literally a million Marriott points right now that I just do not have time to spend, which is a really, really awesome problem to have.

You also I think if you do it correctly, these sorts of experiences can bond people that travel together, if you spend time with someone in a foreign country navigating that chaos, it tends to build these emotional bonds.

I don’t know if Tim Falls is in the room? But yeah, there he is. So Tim probably remembers the time we went to Japan and got naked and went in a hot tub together, right? That sort of thing is a very bonding experience. Something that I will always remember, of course, but those sorts of things can be upsides of travel.

Audience Member: It’s not in the speaker notes.

That story is not in the speaker notes. You can ask Tim all about it though.

So when it comes to the downsides of travel. Oh, upsides of travel too, it’s also correlated with a lower body mass index and lower blood pressure, which is really cool.

Downsides of travel

Some of the downsides of travel though, is it’s basically worse for you in every other way. You feel more overwhelmed, it’s inability to keep up with work that needs to be done, and it basically leads to sleep deprivation, eating poorly, pretty much everything except for your BMI and your blood pressure gets worse when you travel.

And this also, work piles up. Everyone that traveled to be at this conference knows that your team, your stakeholders, your peers are all still out there doing stuff, and that’s not going away, you don’t get to just come back from your vacation, select all unread emails and delete and ask everyone else to please make sure they tell you all the important things. Although there are some VCs who love to give that kind of advice on Twitter. I don’t have that kind of clout, if you do, awesome.

So these things, like I mentioned, are crazy risks for burnout. You have things that make life difficult at home, if you’re traveling a ton you’re away from your kids and your family, they’re not going to be very, it strains those personal relationships. It strains your co-worker relationships. It makes it hard for you to keep up with work. And it can physically cause your body to deteriorate in certain ways.

So you have to pay attention to these things, and put systems in place to mitigate some of this risk. So what do some of those things look like? How do we start to mitigate some of these problems?

Logical groups

One thing is to put the work that you’re doing into logical groups that reduce the scope of travel, and the scope of remote communication that’s necessary.

So these groups can be built around things like geography, the team that I lead is a regional team, all of the Americas, that’s a big region. Within that team, we will probably at certain scale get to the point where we need to start adding regional team leads so that they can have higher bandwidth communications with the people that they’re directly interfacing with.

This can also be creating logical groups around channel. So you don’t always have to get on an airplane to do effective developer relations work, a lot of it can be done live streaming on Twitch, a lot of it can be done writing awesome blog posts, creating technical content, going through an open source SDK, clearing out a few issues. All of those things don’t require travel, and you can create teams around those sorts of things.

And then if you start to notice that people are actually getting close to that burnout point, you can maybe have a rotation and say, “Okay, you’ve done 87 bajillion miles so far, and it’s Q3, let’s rotate you over to the live streaming team for a period of time so that you can make sure you’re taking care of things at home and meet face to face with your stakeholders that are missing you.”

Lead by example

So all of the other photos are from other people, which is why they’re beautiful. I took this photo, which is why it’s less produced, but still, I think extremely beautiful. And I think it’s very important when you are one of these distributed managers, and a person who travels a lot to make sure you set that example.

And I will say right now that if you work for an organization that has unlimited PTO, but they do not tell you what the minimum amount you are required to take is, it is a scam. And you need to go to your manager and say, “Hey, this is not okay.” Essentially, what you’re saying is you’ve codified, “I will work as much as my boss and only take as much PTO as my boss.” So if you’re in that situation, this is far more important.

But make sure that everyone you talk to is actually using their PTO, that should be available to you as a manager. Review that, and if someone’s not using it, make them use it, they need to. Make sure that you have some vacation planned that you’re looking forward to. And I try and encourage everyone on my team to do this, get something booked and on the calendar so you have that lighthouse, you have something that you’re aiming for.

Especially right now as we’re kind of in a busy season then we hit that lull August, September, and then we hit crazy season where every marketing organization in the world wants to spend their marketing budget before the year rolls over, and you have giant events like re:Invent, all of those things back-loaded. So make sure that you’re leading by example, giving people that goal to hit.

Find other channels

Find other channels, I mentioned this a little bit. Find ways for people to do the work without having to get on that airplane. Let them determine a little bit their own fate. I’ll talk more about that, because that can cut both ways too.

But make sure that you have clear paths and guardrails in place for enabling the types of communication that you need. I’m going to talk more about communication in a moment, but this essentially means that you need to have for all of the important things that you do an asynchronous system with a central source of truth that people can refer back to, update on their own schedule, and basically know how things are going.

So for some examples of this, for our weekly team stand up meeting, we usually have maybe 40% attendance because of the amount of people that travel, schedule conflicts, someone’s on stage somewhere giving a talk.

So what we do is we have a structure defined for that team meeting, it’s the same every week, and we have a rolling document where everyone goes and puts their update. So even if you can’t make the meeting, you can still review what other people are up to, we comment and collaborate on that document, we understand that not everyone’s going to make it, it’s fine, you don’t have to let us know you’re not going to be on the meeting, just go do your work, update the document and everything’s going to be okay.

This also means that you have to have a clear process in place for supporting those things about travel that suck. So, expense reports, always painful, but you need to put systems in place to make that as painless as possible. Enable people to do the necessary overhead in the simplest way they can.

And one thing that I love, I’ve been at AWS for about a year now, I think I’ve had to manually review four expense reports the entire time I’ve been there. We have an auditing team, most of them get automatically approved. It has been a life-changing experience compared to what I was doing before managing 13 people and spending several hours every week reviewing reports, line item by line item.

Close the loop

So it’s also really important to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to communication style. So this means that everyone needs to close the loop, and if you are an airplane pilot or were in the military, you probably already understand what closed-loop communication is, or maybe if you are a TCP engineer, some sort of network protocol thing.

But this essentially means that when an instruction is given, it’s repeated back to the person that gave the instruction to make sure that the person executing the task and the person signing the task both understand exactly what’s happening, but it also means that status must be delivered at the end of the event.

So it’s not enough for me to say, “Hey, can you handle this thing? I’m going to be gone at an event.” And you say, “Yes, great.” That’s not closing the loop, that’s an open loop. To close that loop, you need to send an email and say, “Hey, the thing you asked me to do is done. Here’s the current status. Here’s any necessary actionable items to follow up on.”

If you don’t do that, if you don’t close the loop, if people don’t have that team-wide expectation, it leads to a lot of that strife and conflict that starts to make those personal relationships within the team degrade.

Face to face

So it’s very important as well to make sure that you’re giving your team an opportunity to get face to face, so that you can define, describe these processes. And I’m not saying that you should come in and say, “Here’s the process, stick to it, you want to have minimum viable process, just enough to make sure that communication is running smoothly.

But face to face time cannot be replaced. When you use asynchronous communication channels like email, like Slack, like Amazon Chime if maybe you work at AWS, then there’s a lot of room to misinterpret things, words mean things to different people. Depending on how distributed you are, words really mean different things to different people because they’re from a different language, it’s not a native thing, there’s a lot of technical jargon that doesn’t directly translate.

Those types of things can be much more easily solved if you’re meeting face to face regularly. So I suggest at least once per quarter, get everyone in the same room and talk about all of the work that you’re doing.

Make sure that you make time within that for emergent conversations, you don’t want to plan everything out and make sure like, don’t schedule the entire week, give people time to go meet face to face, establish those co-working relationships, maybe build back some of the trust that might have been lost during a miscommunication about an email.

Slow yes

And then, as a manager, you need to encourage your team to focus on a slow yes. So, we all know someone or are someone who loves to help people, we tend to be willing and able to do all kinds of different tasks, whatever hat you want us to wear, we’ll probably try and find a way to wear it.

But that also leads to a tendency to over commit yourself as an evangelist, or as an advocate, or even as a manager. And for me, the way that I mitigate this is by asking people to take time to really think about the things that they commit to.

And I would even go so far to say that the more exciting an opportunity is for you, the slower or the more considerate you should be about accepting that thing, because we tend to get blinded by that emotion. You’re like, “I got invited to speak at this awesome thing, and I agreed to it, and then I went and I looked at my calendar and I have to take two connecting flights, and I have crazy schedule to make this thing work. But I was really excited when I heard about it, so I said yes without actually taking the time to dig in.”

And I think this is a hard thing to do. In some cases, you have people that you might even need to actively get involved and take things off of their plate that they’ve over committed to, in a nice way.

You don’t want to tell anyone that they made the wrong decision, or that they should have said no to something. But if you notice someone is on the path to burnout or you look at someone’s schedule of events, and it’s crazy, you might say, “Hey, let’s find someone else on the team that might be able to help out with this particular aspect.”

Be considerate about how you plan things

I’m starting to remember some of the things that I skipped over in the notes now, so I’m going to start jumping around a little bit, but bear with me. I think another thing to consider, I mentioned upsides of travel and getting naked in hot tubs and how that can be a bonding experience, there’s also downsides to that sort of travel.

The opposite can be true if you have teammates that are maybe not necessarily the best match. And I remember one time where I had two people on my team based in Latin America, and they seemed to have a decent working relationship. And we set up this three week-long tour where they were going around to different user groups, going to a bunch of hackathons, meeting with investors, meeting with startups, and I knew that they weren’t maybe best friends, but I was like, yeah, they both know the region, they’re the right choice for the team.

And after that trip, they both came back and one of them immediately quit, like basically the day after he got home, because of all of the stress that he had to deal with and the conflict that working directly with this other teammate was causing.

And that was a moment where I as a manager felt like I had really failed, I should have been able to figure out… Well one, I should have known that the person that quit was that close to burnout already, I was probably missing some signs. But I also should have considered that length of time, the craziness of the schedule, and the close proximity between two people who maybe have a bit of friction in how they communicate was going to cause problems.

So, be considerate about how you plan things too, and this is important when it comes to distributed teams within offices as well. If you have a small office somewhere, and someone sits at a desk right around other teammates that they don’t necessarily get along with, this doesn’t necessarily have to be on your team but within the organization, that can also cause that burnout to accelerate.

Share experiences

And then take the time to share your experiences, you want to make sure people are able to appreciate the fact that they have an opportunity to travel, that they have knowledge of their home city that they love.

So, if you have someone on your team that is in San Francisco and you travel to San Francisco, reach out to that person, see if they want to meet up, but also ask them what are the best things to do? “Where’s the best gelato shop? Where should I go have dinner? What’s the best…?” I don’t know whatever you’re into, like, “What’s poke bowls?” Or “What’s the trendy things right now?” Something like that, Boba tea, I don’t know.

And also, as a manager encourage this, put process in place, write a guide to the city that you’ve been to the most and describe, “Hey, here’s the hotel that’s well-positioned, reasonably priced, has good transportation. Here are four restaurants nearby that you should check out. And here’s, if you’re going to stay an extra day for a day trip, go do this thing.” And that’s another thing as a manager that you should encourage, make sure people are able to take the time to enjoy the things that they do.

So let someone, like I was asked to speak at an event in Cancún early May, and that was awesome. But the extra awesome part of it was that I flew out there, the company paid to fly me out there to speak at this event. And then I flew back on a Sunday afternoon and stayed through the weekend to just have a little nice PTO, a little bit of vacation. And that was fine, I was able to expense the flight both ways because I still have to get back home, those types of things should be allowed.

And encourage your team members to make plans to bring some of their family along at some point. So if you’re traveling to something like re:Invent, maybe you can ask to have your children, your partner join you and share that hotel room cost. They can book their ticket with some of your stashed up credit cards rewards points.

Also, allow your reports to use their own credit card and get reimbursed to earn those points, don’t force everything to go through a corporate card.

So thank you very much. I know that was kind of meandering, it’s the first time I’ve given that talk, hopefully it was valuable there. I would very much love to hear your feedback about this because I plan to give it again at some point and expand and polish it.

And we have so many developer relations roles open at AWS right now, it’s crazy. So you can scan that QR code if it works, or if you work at AWS, raise your hand real quick. So look around, there’s a few people here. Say hello to one of us, and we’ll talk more. Thank you very much, and enjoy your lunch.

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