From software engineer to dev rel: the good, the bad, and the rewarding


Amanda Moran speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Amanda Moran

Amanda Moran moved from software engineering to developer advocate at DataStax. In this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Amanda walks through various aspects of this change and sets out how to find the best fit for your own preferences.


We’re going to talk about my transition from a software engineer to being a developer advocate and to being in this dev rel role. We’re going to talk about the good, the bad and the rewarding.

So just a little bit about me and kind of why I decided to make this transition. So I got my Masters from Santa Clara University in 2012 and I worked as a software engineer at a variety of companies that you could kind of see up here for about six years.

But while I was a software engineer, I was always bridging that gap. I was always being asked to do tasks kind of in this dev rel world, and especially at companies that don’t necessarily have developer advocates.

So I was that voice of engineering. Anytime they needed a customer presentation, a quick demo, grab Amanda. Right? So I was always doing that but I had all my coding work I also needed to be doing at the same time. So there was always a lot of tension because of this.

So I decided to make the switch and just to do developer, you know, advocacy full time. And so I’ve been doing that at DataStax. And DataStax is the enterprise version of Apache Cassandra, if anybody was wanting to know what they do.

Bridging the gap

So the good with that like I said, it’s really utilizing all of my strengths. Being able to make presentations, working on demos, doing technical blogging, technical documentation, those are all things I was doing before, kind of like on the side for both Teradata and a startup that I was at called Esgyn.

And so now I was doing them full time, this is my whole job. So that’s really great, made me feel really good, you know, nobody, there was no friction anymore, I was doing exactly the task that I needed to do.

So it was really just a natural fit for my personality. I’ve always kind of been in that middle layer between whatever you want to call it kind of, before we used to call it the business side and the engineering side but really I think it’s kind of our users, maybe we won’t call business but our users, our community and then engineering. And I’ve always felt as I’m kind of that bridge between those two worlds and so it was just really a natural fit for me.

So what was really good is that all of a sudden I was working on a team. So before I’d always been by myself with this kind of set of skills, bridging the gap which was awesome because I always got tasked with a lot of fun and interesting tasks because of that but I was always by myself, so I never really had anyone to critique my work or to go and ask questions of. I was kind of alone.

Being part of a team

So it was really great to be on a team of eight other developer advocates who all kind of have the same skills as me and we can kind of like work together and feed off of each other.

Also with this role, you have a lot of freedom, at least at DataStax. Now again, just to preface this, I didn’t preface it before, but this is all just my experience, right?

So at DataStax, I’ve had a lot of freedom to explore, to make whichever demos that I want to do. So I’m very interested in machine learning and analytics and so they have part of that in their product and they’ve allowed me to do that.

Even though maybe that isn’t their kind of core selling point, that’s what I’m interested in. And then they said, “Go ahead. If that’s the demos and talks you want to do, go ahead and do it, learn more about it, take courses on it, go to conferences about machine learning.” They were more than welcome to like let me do all those things.

Something you can get behind

So another good thing was the product that I was advocating for and the developer community that I was advocating for, it’s from a really great product. So Apache Cassandra is a very well known open source product, it’s something that’s very good that I could easily get behind, it was the best product I’ve ever worked on.

So I’ve worked on, I think this is kind of my joke I always my talks. And by the way, this is the first time I’ve ever done a talk where I’m talking about myself and not technology, so it’s very nerve-wracking for me. This is probably the most that anyone, like my team later when they watch this, they’ll be, “That’s the most she’s ever talked about herself before,” and it’s true. Spanning that introvert, I’m more of an introvert, extrovert, middle gray area.

But, so it’s a great product, I’ve worked on four different distributed databases and so this is the best one I’ve ever worked on.

And also adventure is out there. That’s a nice quote from “Up,” from, I’m a big Disney fan. So I’ve been able to, so in the last year that I’ve been at DataStax, I’ve been able to go to the east coast and to New York City for different conferences and customer engagements over five times, and I’d never even been there. So, I mean, I’ve got to do so many different things that I never got to do before when I was just sitting in my little cube coding.

Defining job roles

But let’s talk about the bad. So, again, I just want to preface, this is my own experience. Things that I think have been bad about this role, other people may feel completely differently about and they’d be like, “These things sound amazing.”

So the very first one I’m going to say is a poorly defined job role. And that has nothing against DataStax or, you know, or my management or anything like that, I don’t want anybody to take that away and be like, “Oh, they just didn’t give her, you know, the proper boundaries.”

No. I just think because when you are in this gray area of what our roles are, that’s just by definition that it’s just going to be kind of poorly defined. Are you an engineer still? Are you in marketing? Are you in sales? Right?

You can kind of decide on your own how you want to, you know, bridge that and how you feel about it, but at the end of the day, it’s just kind of a gray area. And so for me, I am an engineer, I am very black and white, so it’s been a little tough for me.

Not being on the critical path

It’s also the role hasn’t been as technical as I kind of was hoping for. Again, I had been used to be kind of coding, coding, coding, and then go off, go to a customer engagement, do a big presentation, do some demos, and then come back coding, coding, and coding.

I haven’t, at least in my role, been really able to do that. It’s just not really the things that they need from me. They have a whole engineering team that’s doing a wonderful job and they’re not fighting fires. They don’t need my help and that’s okay.

And also, I haven’t been on the critical path. Like I’ve been talking about a lot of times the other companies I was working at, especially when I was working at a startup that was only 30 people, so often someone would just grab me and just throw me into the fire, right?

I’d be just sitting there on a Friday, having coffee with my coworkers, enjoying and then someone over, “Oh, Amanda we need to make a quick demo and then show it to our customer at three o’clock.” And so even though that was incredibly stressful and I probably cried and complained later on in the day, actually, I really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed being able to go and fight that fire and like, you know, kind of be the hero.

Do you want to be tech famous?

So then a bad thing for me, I don’t really have much desire to be kind of tech famous. So I call it tech famous, like being on Twitter. I’d never had a Twitter account until I got this role. It’s just not something I’m much interested in.

I personally, which this is kind of a hot take, I’m not really, I don’t think it’s servicing my developers to have a large Twitter following. So even though I do tweet and I’ve been tweeting throughout the conference, it’s just not something that, I don’t really want to be famous.

And now, and so I had on my good, working on a team, I also have it on my bad, working on a team, because I’m no longer the unicorn, I’m no longer that special person who gets to do all these special things because I have this special set of skills. Now I’m just one of eight people who all have the exact same skills that I do.

What do you want to do with yourself?

But let’s talk about the rewarding of this job. So what’s really been really rewarding for me and what I’ve really learned about myself is how much I love helping our customers. Now you could call it customers, users, community, the terms are all really interchangeable but just giving some help to, you know, our customers has really been valuable to me.

I was on a customer engagement where I had written up a blog on how to get everything set up, you know, all these different things and my customers, and I showed it to them because they wanted to be able to set this whole thing up. And they said, “Oh wow, you made it so easy, I read your blog and I was able to do it.” I was like, “Oh, that’s such a win, I just love that.” Helping somebody out is just really what, it drives me every day.

You know, our careers, especially as you get further along in your career, it’s no longer just about like the money or necessarily, you know, just trying to get through day to day, it’s really about what do you want to do with yourself, right? What do you want to spend each day doing? And so I’ve been able to learn more about that.

So it’s really been about a lot of personal growth for me even though right now I’m doing personal growth, growth hacking. I’m talking about myself in front of a room full of people. So I’ve learned a lot more about myself, and what do I really want to do next?

Do I want to stay a developer advocate? Do I want to do something different? What do I really value in a job? What do I think is important? I’ve been able to finally kind of, now that I’ve broken out of my shell of being a software engineer and kind of in that mode, kind of see there’s so many more opportunities out there. So what do I really want to do with my time during my workday?

So just some questions to ask yourself. If you’re thinking about going, like making this transition into developer advocacy. So some of the things I kind of came up with here is do my goals, for yourself, really line up with the team? Do they line up with the team?

So you really need to make sure that you have a clear understanding of what the team wants from you. And so can I advocate for this product? So even though you are a developer advocate and it’s really about your developers, at the same time, it’s really about the product.

So if it’s a product you actually believe in, you actually think is a good product, you know, can you actually develop, you know, advocate for that? Or even if it’s not so great of a product, do you feel like, “Oh well I can help and make this product better.” But you really have to feel that because you’re going to be talking about this product day in and day out.”

Need to be solving problems

So then what percentage of the time do I need to be solving problems? So you heard that in my bad section that I loved to be on that critical path, I love to be, you know, fighting off, fighting a fire. So I learned about myself through this last year that I need to be solving problems a lot.

And I need to be solving like technical challenges, I want to be thrown in there, you know, right in the fire. So ask yourself, what percent of the time do I need to do that? Maybe you say, “Oh, I don’t really like doing that. That’s scary. I don’t want to do that.” And so then maybe being a developer advocate where you don’t have to do that as much is good role for you.

Okay. So, and then the next one. Do you want to be tech famous? Do you want everyone to be looking at you all the time? If you want that, you think that sounds exciting, then being a developer advocate might be good for you. Also, do you like traveling for work? So I think we all in this room know how much we all have to travel.

So if you’re moving from a role where you maybe only did a tiny bit of travel like I did, to now doing a lot of travel, you have to really judge if that works for you or not, whether that’s something you really want to do.

But at the end of the day is all about what is right for you and just thinking about your own goals and your own experiences and how that’s going to transfer into your next role.

So, thank you.

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