Engaging with early career developers


Two developers high fiving at an MLH event

Major League Hacking TechTogether at St. John’s University

One challenge for early career developers is getting real hands-on job experience. In other professions, apprenticeships teach newcomers the entirety of a craft. And while bootcamps and computer science degrees can teach people to code, they don’t always train them to be professional developers.

Since 2013, Major League Hacking (MLH) has been working with early career developers to help plug that skills gap. For DevRel teams, MLH is probably best known as a way of getting tech in front of enthusiastic developers. Co-founder of MLH and Great American Baking Show contestant, Jon Gottfried, puts it this way:

MLH is a way that DevRel teams can scale their reach to thousands of developers without having to travel around to hundreds of in-person events.

“We have a variety of different programs that developers go through to learn new technologies. We have hackathons, workshops, virtual conferences, and even a twelve week, in-depth fellowship program. All of these programs are meant to teach people job-ready technical skills.”

MLH solves a significant gap in computer science education.

“In an average computer science classroom, you learn a lot of theory. But you don’t really learn, for example, how to deploy an application to a cloud provider. So, MLH helps people gain skills for what you actually need to do on the job. From a DevRel perspective, it is an opportunity to expose a large number of developers to your tools and platform.”

So, let’s look at what that can bring to your DevRel program.

Trial by fire: hundreds of hands-on developers

Even the best executed DevRel programs will struggle if the product itself fails to live up to expectations. Whether or not your team has a direct role in developer experience, you have a stake in how well the product solves real developer problems.

Getting potentially hundreds of developers hands-on with your product seems like a great way to find the rough edges. But are student and early career developers the best people to give you actionable feedback? According to Jon, they’re perfectly suited.

Jon Gottfried

Jon Gottfried

“The feedback that students deliver is very tactical. They might not have extensive workplace experience but they are developers. They’re going to go through your docs and try to make this whole thing work. I guarantee they’re going to give you feedback about missing definitions, out of date tutorials, and esoteric edge cases that your team may have never thought about.

“These are all of these things you can get from more experienced developers but it’s much more difficult to get that kind of direct feedback at scale because they’re busy working a full-time job as an engineer. Professional developers are not particularly motivated to give unsolicited feedback on a product they’re not already using. Early career developers show up to the events we run and they’re keen to work with new technology.”

Early career developers also tend to be creative because they’re not necessarily thinking in terms of business use cases. 

“A lot of student-built projects are really creative and interesting. They’re often great for marketing collateral stories to show what your platform can actually do in an exciting and fun way. It’s nice to have use cases that cater to a business buyer but developers get excited about interesting applications of technology and students are at the forefront of coming up with novel ideas for how to use technology.”

Unfiltered feedback and marketing stories are useful but what about building adoption?

A bet for the future

Is it worthwhile winning over student and junior developers if they’re not yet in a position to influence a company’s technology choices? For Jon, it’s all about the long term.

“DevRel isn’t sales. It’s not DevRel’s job to bring in contracts every quarter. Instead, you’re building a holistic strategy that considers both the short-term and the long-term. Working with early career developers gives you the chance to earn a place in a developer’s permanent tool belt as they go off into a professional environment. If you can win someone’s trust when they’re starting out, and you have a great product that they enjoy using, then you’ll see the ROI as they bring your products with them during their career.”

MLH table

MLH table

In Jon’s 10-years of experience at MLH, he often sees that return on investment happens sooner than might be expected.

“It’s true that students, for example, will take longer to show ROI than CTOs. DevRel is about building a flywheel, you must focus on the long term as well as the short term.

“It’s great, if you can capture a lot of leads right now. But what about a year from now when you actually want ten times as many developers coming in the door, where do those people come from? How do you actually build the awareness and stickiness that gets those people to come to you when the need arises?

“A lot of that happens by getting developers to use your technology at all stages of their journey because you’ll never be able to guess when that timing is.”

MLH has the numbers to back it up, too. They’ve found that when developers use a technology at a hackathon, they’re then 50% more likely to prefer that platform over competitors for up to five years or more. MLH’s data also shows that 37% of the people who pass through their programs have taken a technology they learned at a hackathon and later introduced into their workplace.

“The folks who invested in hackathons ten years ago have major enterprise customers today as a result. It takes time to grow that garden and see the fruits of it, but it’s real.”

How to engage with early career developers

What advice does Jon have for DevRel teams looking to engage early career developers?

“You have to get a little bit creative around your messaging, swag, and how you present your offering. Try to put yourself in a developer’s  shoes, and think about what will excite them.

“Going to a student hackathon and saying you have the best cost per CPU cycle cloud platform is not going to resonate. It could just be a small change in how you frame it. For example, you might say that your cloud platform is the quickest way to deploy a project instead. Put the individual developer at the centre of your messaging.

“It’s the same with swag. Get creative. Go for something that is interesting and use clever branding. Go beyond just a company logo! You want something that’s gonna resonate with individuals as a way to show brand affinity and appreciation.

“Perhaps most important is a willingness to learn from early career developers. Their unique perspective means they can tell you things others can’t or won’t. That openness can serve you with other audiences, too. A lot of times someone tinkering with your product at a company might not be super experienced and they will look more like a student developer than an enterprise senior developer. They could be the make or brake for your product in that company. You need to keep an open mind to reach those people. It’s not only about hyper technical engagement.”

How MLH can help

Jon argues that working with early career developers should be just one part of a broader strategy that engages with developers at all stages of their career. MLH offers several ways to engage with those developers depending on what’s right for your product and your DevRel program.

“While hackathons are great in some circumstances, you might want to be part of a longer term engagement. Over the years we’ve developed other programs like the MLH Fellowship program, a 12-week program where people get to go really deep on a particular technology. 

“Even if the timing isn’t right for your company to invest financial resources into working with students, I believe philosophically that it’s incredibly important for DevRel leaders to support the next generation of developers. That could be giving a talk at your alma mater. It could be mentoring at a hackathon. It could be helping out with something like Hacktoberfest. You have to be willing and able to give back.”

Major League Hacking (MLH) is Platinum sponsor of DevRelCon London 2023. If you’re joining the conference, stop by their booth, grab some creative swag, and come meet their team in-person!

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