Help! The developer relations credo


Jeff Sandquist speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Jeff Sandquist

General Manager of Cloud + AI Developer Relations at Microsoft Jeff Sandquist has been leading the team transforming the company’s relationship with the developer community.

In this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Jeff explores dev rel as helping developers through content and connections.


That’s what I want to talk about today. It’s about help. And as I send you off or we go off and we go drink a little bit more, we go meet for some beverages after this, because I’ll be there, it’s really, how can I help you with a few of examples of a few things that I’ve learned over the last few years about rebuilding Developer Relations at Microsoft?

How can I send you back with a few things to your CFOs, to your bosses to show how we’re showing that value? And, hey, a few things where I want your help so we can make this industry great.

For those that didn’t get the first slide, there’s a little band called The Beatles, they wrote a number of years ago.

But in reality James Governor did a phenomenal talk at DevRelCon London, and it was called “Sympathy for the DevRel.” And if you haven’t watched it yet, you got to go watch it because “Sympathy for the DevRel” just nails it. It’s on YouTube, please go watch that talk. James just nailed it about some of the strengths, and opportunities, and just how hard this job is.

We’re here to help

And what I want to do today is really talk about, really, the Developer Relations credo, which is “We’re here to help.”

You guys really got me when standing up like that, but… I started at Microsoft 20 years ago, answering the phone. It was the developer hotline. And, you know, it was really just solving developers’ questions. And you know, lots of change with fashion. Got to love them shorts. Lots of change in tech. But one thing that has not changed at all is how I start every conversation is, how can I help?

Help first. Help first. It’s really the Developer Relations credo. The foundation of all Developer Relations and how we start is about helping.

We start with great docs, help people learn. We help with giving samples, get people started quickly. And we help connect people to a community so they can feel like they’re part of something. How can I help?

Start with great content

At Microsoft, we set up our Developer Relations team around great docs. Everything starts with great content.

If you can’t get somebody started, if you can’t give a talk afterwards and say, “Go visit this, here’s how you get started,” please don’t go and give a talk. You got to give something to somebody for them to get started and we believe that’s docs.

Go where they are and bring them inside

Then you go where people are, you go where the communities are, and you connect.

And then you bring them inside into your companies and give context. You listen to them about what they’re trying to build, and how do you help them? How do you make your products better? And you bring them back to your company so that your products become better.

That’s all that we’re here for. We’re here to help. We are accessible, and we’re in our communities, and we’re helping every day. Then like I said, everything starts with great content. Love that last talk.

The authentic path of a developer

Let’s talk a little bit about developers, right? What’s the authentic path of developers? Well, it’s 2:00 in the morning. Inspiration strikes.

They don’t go to your procurement team. Frankly, they don’t go to your marketing site. Where’s the marketing people? They go to Google and they search. And there’s results there. And guess what? How can you get those results? Well, I’m sure you can buy a lot of ads. And what did Jeff Bezos say? “Advertising is the cost of having a lousy product.”

Write great content

Instead, you’re going to write great content, right? You’re going to write docs. They’re going to use the terms that the industry uses, right? You’re going to use those words that people are searching for. And it’s authentic and you’re going to earn that.

You’re going to earn the views to your content. You’re going to get them excited. The spine of any Developer Relations team is great content. It’s not up here talking on stage, walking over to notes, making sure that I make sure that I remember everything, but it’s around content.

Get them excited, give them complete solutions, all the technology that can be at their disposal, and explain how to do it. Be there to help.

You know, at Microsoft, I came back about four years ago. And we love docs so much, we had them scattered across 17 different websites. We were so proud of our docs that we didn’t want to share them in any other different languages besides English. And a lot of our systems were 25, 15 years old.

And we said, “Hey, do we need MSDN? Do we need TechNet?” These old sites probably don’t even know what those are, these, like, things that were Microsoft. “Hell no. We need” And so we put loads of investments into

I remember we were getting ready to kick it off, and somebody said, “What CMS are we going to use?” And I said, “Oh my gosh, really, we’re doing this project?” Everybody I’ve ever met that is smarter than me has been fired for building a content management system, or they’ve never shipped. I said, “Let’s not do that.”

Docs are code

So we built it all around GitHub. And we built all of our workflow around GitHub. And we said, “docs are code.” And you know what, we took all of our products, our APIs, and reference, and we said, “You know what, let’s document our APIs within the triple-slash comments of the source code. Let’s make all of our conceptual docs and the repositories for that mastered in GitHub.

You know what, I’m sure we have editors and all those things, but why don’t we have core committers, contributors? And we open-sourced every piece of documentation across Microsoft. And every piece of docs is available publicly. And, frankly, it’s a very permissive license for commercial use or whatever.

You take our docs and do whatever the heck you want with us, but please read them. And if you see something broken, click Edit up in the top right. You’ll do a pull request, and depending on the team, a few hours later, your change will be merged.

Speak their language

But that investment in docs wasn’t just about giving you a great place for these things to render on a nice domain, we did consolidate those from 17 into 1, but it was also about localization. How do you make sure that we, now we localize up to 70 different locales around the world. You want to build software around the world? You got to speak their language.

Really proud of some other things that we went to go do, right? We built this thing called Microsoft Learn. You want to stop a developer in their tracks? You introduce friction.

We said, “How can we teach people how to use Azure?” We created Microsoft Learn and we said, “You know what, we’re not going to require a credit card. We’re not going to require people to sign up for our service and go how to use it.

So how can we build something like a TryRuby for the cloud?” And that’s what Microsoft Learn is. Go to sometime or now, I won’t stop you. And what you’ll find is one of the fastest, easiest way to go learn our products. Go take a look at it, steal it for your companies, take the ideas, help me share with some things where it’s broken.

Eliminate friction

But this is really about eliminate that friction. How do you get somebody started fast? How do you get it so that they can go learn along with it? And, frankly, can they have a lot of fun along the way?

You know, TwilioQuest is gorgeous. It’s the perfect example of something like this. It’s, frankly, lot more fun in the user experience. But it’s about how do you get people to learn, and do those achievements, and do it in micro-based ways?

I don’t know about you, but how the heck do you keep up these days, right? There’s a new service launching every other hour. And this is about micro-based bite-sized learning for our products. We want to teach the world to code and we want to skill them all, and we want to bring them to our content, and we want to connect them to other places.

One of the biggest shifts in computing is underway, folks. Bigger than anything we’ve ever seen, which is the shift to the cloud. You like money, great, trillions of dollars of opportunity ahead. That’s fun.

You want to change the lives of everybody, folks? Let’s teach people how to code. Let’s help them. You will change the world by the work that you go out and teach people, and you will change lives, because they’re going to learn how to better themselves because of your help.

How do you show the return on investment?

But evangelism, advocacy, Developer Relations. Anybody have a CFO? Anybody got a boss? Jeez, how do you show the return on investment? We spend all of this time thinking about, how do you measure evangelism? How do you measure advocacy?

Well, I’ve been doing this for about 20 years. This is my chosen profession. This is what I do. This is what I know how to do and what I’ve done in different companies in different industries. And I like to think that I’ve helped advance the profession.

Back in the day, we’d measure evangelism like this, “It was a great talk boss. See that expense report, I took those four customers out.” It was awesome.

Guess what, that we’re all working on SAS solutions, we are now looking at software as a service, and it’s the internet. And I’ll tell you what we’ve learned at Microsoft. Zero percent chance anybody in the last two years has signed up for Azure without spending time on

Zero percent chance. Everything starts with great content. Twenty-five percent more likely, those trials, those non-paying users turn into paying customers just by spending time on our Azure content.

We don’t go and create new communities

We go out where our customers are, not our sites. We don’t go and create new communities and new places, we go out to the Node conferences. I say, “Go out, meet our customers, and bring them back to our docs. If they don’t want to, let’s learn why.”

Our CFO at Microsoft talks about how the single most impactful, one of the most single and most impactful investments that Amy has made in the last few years was her investments in Developer Relations at Microsoft.

Just think about that, think about all the choices that Amy has to go make in our company. We’re putting billions of dollars of capex into data centers. And Developer Relations is one of the most impactful investments that she makes.

We don’t have to go explain the value of what we do, right? We use simple data to understand, “Hey, are things growing? Are we getting growth in signups? How do you have that appropriate signal when somebody’s out doing a talk and somebody goes and visit docs?” And we can connect that and we connect that back to the growth of the company.

I think was Kelsey, yesterday said, “Hey, revenue and growth matter. They matter because you’re part of an ecosystem inside the company.” And that value at Microsoft, we see it. We see it every day.

Our founding moment at a company was not founded in retail, it was not founded in search, digital advertising, and social network. It was two nerds, Bill and Paul were building BASIC for the Altair. Two great men, great individuals that were just building tools for devs.

And what did they do after that? Well, they went out to a bunch of meetups, The Homebrew Computing Club, and they went in to show what they’d built. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. It’s about going out, listening, helping one another, and connecting with the community.

These companies, Stripe, Twilio, GitHub, you know, when we went back to kind of how we were going to reinvent developer at Microsoft, and we got a long road here to go. This is, like, not a victory lap. We’re in these really early stages of this transformation. But the first place we went to was not went and looked inside our walls. Went and visited Stripe.

You know, the Collison brothers were built around developers, they built with docs. Romain is here, I think around from Twilio, or from Stripe. Jeff Lawson and the Twilio teams. You guys set the standard. I look at the tone of your docs, I look at the style, I look how you show up with TwilioQuest, man. GitHub, worked out really well for them.

Documentation makes it a product

But again, it was around, but, you know, again, docs, documentation is a badge of honor in a company. If you’re a great engineer, you’re going to want to have great technical documentation. If you’re just building a product, and you ship it without docs, congratulations, you shipped some code on GitHub. Way to go. If you ship it with docs, you’ve shipped a product.

We stand on the shoulders of these giants. They didn’t have thousands of people to go around the world and go speak at meetups and so forth. They said the most important thing that we can go do is invest in technical documentation and they’re there to help. And so we stand on the shoulders of giants, and watch and learn as we went to reinvent how we connect with developers.

So, now we know that our docs are a reliable tool that convert visitors to customers, we can turn our attention to getting more customers. Anybody else have that issue in your company, you want to get some more customers? Right. Well, we go where they are. Right?

We hire great individuals and we won’t tell them to, “Hey, let’s go create this big Microsoft conference.” We have many of those. “Can you please go to the Node meetup and ask how we can help?” How can we help? How can we get more people at your meetup? Right?

How can we help people that are working on a similar project as you join your project? How can we give you some sample code to get you started? And how can we make you feel part of a tribe, not alone, and connected with the community? That’s how we help.

How are you authentic when you connect?

Look at all these frameworks. I don’t know most. Some of you out here in San Francisco you probably think Azure is the .NET Windows club, right? We run all of these. And when we show up to our customers, .NET that you probably know about is equal to Java in our cloud, Python, right? All of these things, from DevOps frameworks to container technologies, they all run on Azure. And we have to show up with our customers with accurate content. The stories we tell have to be consistent. Holy cow, we better not color code Python the same way you do C# Poser.

How are you authentic when you connect? Well, the only way you can do it is that if you have people from these communities, you bring into your company, and you go out there and connect where people are, in the forums they are, and understand and speak that language, and then bring them back to your company.

It’s worked out pretty well for us too. You know, the shift of Microsoft as from, there was an article this week about Microsoft being the Great Satan of open source to really about being this great contributor. And we have some of the top projects in open source now that we created, really proud of that. And it’s really about enabling that.

Evangelism to advocacy

Evangelism to advocacy. I don’t know, a lot of people carry the title technical evangelist, I did for many years. We made a shift to go out saying its advocacy. It’s two way. It’s two way, right?

How do we listen? How do we go out for customers and advocate, not just for Microsoft, but advocate from them? How do we advocate for our industry? How do we advocate for inclusion? And how do we help?

Wonderful team. This is the Hoover vacuum. Yes, we’re still hiring You know, it was really about not going and creating and hiring people internally and so forth. It was about going out and connecting with communities, and hiring community leaders that can go out and bring their friends.

But how could they go help? How can they connect? How can they go help our customers to be productive? That’s what we do every day. Our advocates go out and they do feedback. How can our products be better? Fundamentally changing, like, how our products work.

And you all know, I know your companies have great feedback sources from enterprise-paying customers, but the feedback that you bring back to your product teams is different. Give you some examples.

Our serverless product called Functions. It had really horrific problems with cold start. And our product team said, “Look, it’s okay because of the nature of it, no customer is really going to experience that in production. And we’re really focused on Java support because Domino’s is running their pizza orders. But, boy, that cold, through it and we got to nail that, Jeff. It’s like, revenue.”

I said, “Yeah, but every time one of my people get up on stage to demo, your product is slow as hell.” And anytime somebody does, like, a sample, and they go to download, and they go to work, it’s like, not five minutes to wow, it’s five minutes from wooow.

Zero to wow

Zero to wow, that delighter is getting people excited, right? That was different feedback that never would have came on your wall, so we got that fixed, right?

Simple things like, “Hey, can we serve out of storage websites that are static HTML? Nobody wants to pay for this other way of doing it, all this overhead.” We made that happen.

We go to events, we write great content, and we connect with the community. You need to be present every day within these communities, authentically contributing and connecting, and make those friends and connections, and help one another. It’s so important. And just doing it so in the way that you can be you, right?

So, now you’re going to bring your customers inside and this is like the scary part. Years ago, we had the thing at Microsoft that I was a part of called Channel 9. It’s modeled after the inflight audio on United Airlines. You can tune into the cockpit and you can listen in to the pilots.

And you know, when it’s up there on the plane and it’s bumpy, if you tune into the cockpit, I’m usually kind of freaking out no matter, like, just all like you guys have been to so many different time zones in the last year and living on a plane, I still get a little nervous.

But you tune into the cockpit and you hear that pilot. And you know what, it’s bumpy as hell and all they’re saying, “Well, I think we’re going to go down to about 30,000 feet,” and their calm as heck, they’re not freaking out.

But I tell you without that context, if that airplane just shot over to the right, and you’re in the plane, what are you doing? Well, I’m grabbing on my seat and going, “This better not be at the time. By numbers, I’m a dev rel person. I’m on a plane more than anything, odds aren’t going to work for me, let’s not look at that percentages.”

Setting context

But it’s setting that context. And that is no different. That is no different. People put their livelihoods in our hands, folks. I’m not kidding you. They go into their boss after seeing your talk on the weekend and they say, “We want to use Twilio, and we’re going to go invest in that.”

Or they make training decisions and career decisions. They decide they’re going to be a Python person or they’re going to go all in on Kubernetes. And we slip a feature, cut a feature, don’t fix a bug, change a roadmap, or don’t do what we intend to, it’s not helpful.

We got to set that context and communicate, and it’s no different than that airplane flying off. And since then, you know, Channel 9 became a YouTube channel on there. And our advocates are out there on Twitter and we encourage them to build their own persona. And like you, we’re trying lots of new things with Twitch, and Slack, and every single way that we can go out and connect with our customers.

Being vulnerable and authentic

And man, it’s a tire fire out there sometimes, folks. You know, you put yourself out there and being vulnerable. Man, it’s not fun sometimes, right? But I’ll tell you, every good relationship I’ve ever had began with being vulnerable, being authentic, connecting with customers.

And I’ll tell you, there’s some bad people out there. Show up at some other people’s talks, harass you all on the internet. Let’s help one another. Let’s take care of one another. Man, there’s some crappy people out there and the world’s not fun.

But never more have we needed a community like this to take care of ourselves than the world we live in. And this community is good. You’re wonderful. “Same team, different company,” my buddy, Kelsey, always says. Let’s take care of each other out there regardless of what that tire fire is.

At the end of the day, the best growth tactics you have in your arsenal is authentically helping people. Let’s not complicate things. It takes great content for you to do your work. It takes great presentations to be able to do that.

But one last thing, my entire career has been built around doing dev rel. I started answering the phone, I’ve done work in the community. I’ve had those legs of flights when you miss a family thing because you’re coming back and something got delayed, and you miss the family reunion.

I’ve been out there around the world and I want to, you know, and you think about what we do for a living. This is my life’s work. And I started by helping developers on the support line. And I now have, like, the really good fortune of helping developers.

We are engineers. We are speakers. We are writers. We are helpers. And I know there is often lots of talk about what is Developer Relations, and it’s this. Let’s embrace our diversity. Let’s embrace the community that has us for developers. And let’s go help one another. Let’s go help the community and let’s go help this profession to continue to grow and be helpful. And let’s go help developers around the world.

Thank you. Thank you.

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