Planning your dev rel career


Jessica Rose

Jessica Rose

Jessica Rose has built a reputation for championing and mentoring people through their developer relations careers. In this talk from DevRelCon London 2019 she shares practical advice on how to plan and manage your own dev rel career.


Jess: I am, well I think I used to be, rather well known for being always very very excited, but it’s 2019 and it’s been 2019 for about 50 years. So I’m delighted to be here with you all today, but cautiously so. At least in the next 20, 25 minutes, everything should be mostly fine.

I’m going to be talking to you all today about different career paths in devrel. As Joe helpfully pointed out, my name is Jessica Rose. I’ve been working in devrel for roughly a million and a half years and as part of my effort to get off the road, I now lead the tech speaker program, which is a volunteer evangelism program. We’ve got 140 volunteers at the moment and they’re based all over the world. The most exciting thing is this program is open to applications right now. So if you’re speaking on things that overlap with Mozilla’s mission, you’re talking about rust or the open web or really exciting stuff that we also care about, you can apply. If you’re accepted, you get five weeks of remote speaker training, but also the option to ask for us to fund your travel for specific events. So I think it’s a pretty good deal, but I’m biased.

Before I moved into tech, I was a teacher so I’m going to do sort of a weird thing. I’m going to put the learning outcomes I hope folks are getting out of this talk right up front. We’re going to be talking about how folks might get into devrel which is going to be incredibly boring for the folks in devrel. Then we’re going to be looking at what things you can do while you’re in devrel roles to kind of future-proof your future career. But if this isn’t applicable to you, and that’s not applicable to you, I also want to see if we can run this as a slightly interactive session. Heckling out loud is probably going to be challenging. I’m going to give you a social media way to politely argue on the internet or usefully share your own opinion, whichever way you’re inclined. You say, “Wow, Jess, actually I’m already in devrel and I’m not too worried about my future career and I hate arguing on the internet. What else do you have for me?” I have like the door, the door is there. But also I’ve built in a very small bribe. I have the world’s ugliest cats and if you stick with me til the end, I’ll give you a couple pictures of ugly cats. If you’re not into ugly cats, like none of this is going to be helpful. I’m sorry in advance.

For the interactivity, if when we’re talking about getting into devrel and you’re already here, go ahead and tweet at me or include the hashtag and we’ll just start threads of conversations that should have minimal arguments. I’d love to see other people’s tips and most importantly, I’d love to see what hiring managers think and what hiring managers in different types of devrel might think. So first off, we’re going to talk a bit about getting into devrel. Anybody who’s not currently working in devrel who might want to be – raising your hands is too much. Can you look kind of hopeful and nervous? It’s also the UK at this time of year, so everybody’s looking more nervous than hopeful.

The one thing I do do a lot of outreach work with folks trying to get into devrel. And one thing that I find myself saying the most often is I know it’s hard, I’m sorry. It can feel almost impossible to get your first developer relations role. You’ve got experience in other areas in tech or maybe you’re even a new grad and you’re just putting yourself out there again and again and again and you’re getting either your e-mails not replied to (hiring managers, have a chat with me after this. Don’t do that). Or a lot of polite nos. And a lot of what I see is folks being asked we’d love to hire you, but you don’t have any developer relations experience for this first developer relations job – which is fine. What I’m going to talk to you about is different ways you can demonstrate experience in the areas devrel managers and folks for these roles often want before applying for your first devrel role, which sounds kind of messed up where I’m saying, “Hey, I’m going to talk you through how you can work for free doing extra work until you can get paid for it”. Hopefully many of these skills are often ones you can try and source in your existing work.

Being on stage. The first one I’m going to touch on is presentations. Getting up and there’s a couple people speaking over the next couple of days who aren’t working in devrel yet and are looking to break into it. Wow, that is incredibly brave. I’m going to speak to the profession I want to break into is pro level. You don’t have to go immediately up to a conference stage. I love to see folks speak at local meet-ups. You’ve got the option of voluntarily asking conferences to be on a panel. Getting on podcasts is a very scalable, editor-friendly way to get this practiced. Is anyone here in the audience terribly shy? I totally respect that if you say, “Wow, Jess,” because we’re on a first name basis now being in a small room, “I absolutely under no circumstances want to be on stage.” Despite what even conferences like this might suggest, you can work in developer relations and have a really satisfying career without having to get on any stages. Let’s look at some other things you can do to add lines to your resume or add lines to your CV that make a lot of sense and show hiring managers what you’re ready for.

Not all folks who work in developer relations do write code or even can write code, but if this is something you do and something you’re interested in, you’ve got the opportunity to build a weird side project, and write the internet a tutorial. Working on open source projects or reviewing pull requests for open source projects are all really fantastic ways to be able to go in to that first interview or that temp interview and say, “Hey, here’s experience “that overlaps with your not always fantastically written job description.”

Outside of writing code, I love to encourage folks with experience either writing or reviewing documentation. This can be very dry documentation, but as a hiring manager, I’m a sucker for a tutorial. One of my favorite things to see is somebody who’s built a small side project or done some work in an open source space and then written up a tutorial. It really clearly demonstrates the kind of teaching and communication skills I think are really valuable for developer relations.

But let’s say you’re very very social, but in a way you don’t want to get on stage. I love to see folks who are running events that don’t necessarily have pizza, but I love to see evidence of folks, when I work with them one on one or interview them, I love to see people able to talk about events, events they volunteered at, events they’ve maybe even organized, or events they’re an active, positive community member for. This can be as lightweight as I help out with a local meet-up or as ill-advised as I run an international series of conferences. Clearly, one of those is a place you should start.

I’m naturally very biased, but I love to see folks who can demonstrate some level of teaching. When we look at developer relations, we look at communicating technical ideas with a larger audience. I personally think one of the most exciting ways you can do this is teaching. Tutorials, I keep coming back to them. I love seeing folks who’ve given workshops, but if I see on people’s resumes or working with them that they’ve volunteered at a local code club or they’ve been a mentor coach for a weekend coding session for newbies, I think this is fantastic evidence and evidence I’d really like to encourage other managers to focus on.

Has everybody here seen a decent number of devrel job listings? Don’t raise your hand if you’re next to your manager. Devrel jobs are huge and massive and varied. While these areas we’ve touched on, you might want to look at your presentation skills, your code skills, your documentation, running events, and teaching. I think those are going to be the five big ones you’re likely to find in most job descriptions. Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s a lot of miscellaneous stuff. I don’t know specifically what you’re interested in career wise, so what I really like to encourage folks to do is whenever you see a job listing that looks exciting to you, go ahead and take a screenshot of that and keep them all in the same folder. If you’re looking for work, this is going to be an also apply for this process, but if you’re, even if you’re not looking for work, even if you love your job, even if you’re going to try and stay there forever, having a bunch of job descriptions that are both higher than your level and lower than your level gives you sort of an audible trail of what you cared about at the moment. Say “Wow, I’m going to go back and review this every quarter or every year and looking back on this, it looks like what I really care about are these hardware start-ups, doing things or it looks like what I care about is more over on the op side. Maybe I should sit down and look at my career goals and see if they make sense in this space”. So the miscellaneous things you’re going to want to do are going to really come from this research you’re doing on job descriptions.

Everybody likes four letter acronyms so please have these monstrosities. As you’re doing these things, as you’re helping out at events or speaking, as you’re building these skills and please always be updating your CV. Even if you’re not looking for work right now, especially if you’re not looking for work right now, it’s incredibly easy to give a talk, to volunteer, to run an event and say, “Oh I’m going to make a note about this. I’m definitely going to do this later”. And as you’re older, tired, future self, you’re not going to do it later. Having a working copy of your CV or resume and updating that as you go is going to be a really fantastic way to build all of this experience into what you, into the document you are eventually going to bring employers.

But many of you are already working in developer relations. Like, “Hey, here’s how you can get the job you already have” is less helpful than it might be. For those of you who are just trying to break into devrel, you know that getting your first job sucks. I’m sorry. The exciting news is that getting your second job gets a lot easier. And after that, you just get a lot of LinkedIn spam from jobs you don’t want where they’re like, “Hey, would you take half your pay to relocate to Cincinnati?” Hypothetically. And that’s great. So there’s future beautiful success waiting for you. I almost promise. A lot of weird things can happen in the next week.

For folks who are already in industry, there’s things you can do to help your future career. The first thing is just stay as okay as you can. There’s a decent chance you’re getting on a lot of planes, you’re eating a lot of pizza, you’re being offered a lot of free beer, which coming from a non-tech background and moving into this, all of this is still magical and weird right? If you can, you avoiding burn out should really be your manager’s responsibility. And yours, but practically speaking, I’m afraid that it might be mostly on you. There’s a lot of folks talking about burn out right now. There’s a lot of really practical approaches. The best thing you can do for your future career is, firstly, just not destroy yourself for a job. Secondly, and this is going to sound possibly a bit patronizing to grown adults who are professionals, just the best thing you can do for your future career is not torpedo it. A lot of folks do get burned out and a lot of folks are doing a lot and weirdly at events, folks will keep trying to give you free beer. The folks who’ve been around for a couple years or the folks who’ve been doing devrel, you’ll catch them at the after party. They’ll be able to chat to you about like, “Oh, and then so and so did this thing “and it was terrible and there were repercussions forever.” Or no repercussions. Everybody’s got horror stories of either themselves or someone else crashing out their career, having too much to drink, saying something offensive on the internet, just acting a bit foolish. If I can give you anything for your future career, it’s just, continue to act like the adult you’ve no doubt been throughout every step of your career.

Giving career advice to general technologists, I often have to tell them like networking is okay. It’s not bad. In developer relations, I think I’m speaking to a friendly audience here. And we’re incredibly privileged. We network for a living. That’s magical and exhausting. The one thing I would always push is tonetwork meaningfully. It’s very tempting to be like, “Oh, hey, what do you do? Anyway, I’m on this project and what we’re trying to do, here’s a sign up link.” It’s really tempting to go ahead and push really hard. Networking meaningfully and adding value for others is asking very genuinely, “What are you doing? Oh gosh, that’s exciting. What do you need help on? What actual value can we add to this?” But all of you are going to be meeting a ton of people. You’re going to meet 60, 70, how many people are here? Mumble, mumble, hundred people over the next two days and unfortunately as much as you might treasure every single hello, you’re not going to be able to remember all of them. I strongly advocate for tracking your contacts in non-creepy ways. I used a personal CRM called Monica, which I strongly recommend. And I will after meeting folks today, take short notes, short non-creepy notes. You all can GDPR me whenever you want. Never write down anything you wouldn’t want somebody to see naturally, but being able to say this person works for this company. I met them at this thing. They’re working on this stuff. They care about this. If you ever think you’re going to follow up with someone, say “Wow so and so is working on this thing, I’d love to work on this thing someday”, adding them to your phone contacts, adding them to your weird custom database, finding non-obtrusive ways to make a note for your future self can be fantastic. For years and years I used paper and pencil and that was marvelous.

One thing I do like to encourage folks, especially juniors do, as they’re breaking into devrel is I like to really encourage folks to keep a do not work with list as part of their contacts. And say, “Wow, I got out there and I met this person and they were terrible. Maybe I want to not work with them either at their current or future company”. When you’re first trying to break in, you’ve got a lot less power to say, “Hmm, I’m going to pass on that fancy job”. But even if you can’t avoid them in the next year or avoid them in the next two years, you’re going to be massively fancy soon. Having that list, like “Oh, here were the folks I would love to work with and here are the folks who maybe we don’t need to hang out”.

You’re not necessarily going to stay in devrel forever. And while it’s very impolitic to say, oh, you know I’m only around for the next six months and then I’d love to be doing what you’re doing, it’s probably not going to please your manager terribly. And folks who are in the U.S., it’s likely going to get you fired. But you do have a lot of smaller ways that you could talk about the kinds of things you like to be doing. If you’re extremely interested in a different area of tech where you’re not sitting right now or you’d love to be a founder someday, or you’d love to work at a specific company, the kinds of things you’re doing for work and your current projects, you can also duplicate with that mountains of free time you no doubt have. Writing blog posts about the spaces you’re interested in. Talking openly, saying “Oh wow, you work on blue widgets. “I’ve always been really interested in blue widgets. How did you break into it? What are the things you wish you knew about blue widgets then?” Even if you’re not a newbie, even as a professional coming in, as you do these things, as you give a conference talk, as you further build your career, continue to be updating your CV. It doesn’t have to be the live version of it. It doesn’t have to be the version of it that lives on LinkedIn, but keeping notes to yourself about what you’ve done and what you’ve learned. As a boring, yet not boring, as a very cool, as a former teacher, it often feels like a living, learning journal. Say, “Wow, I’ve done this or I’ve learned this. I’m going to record it in these ways”. But saying to specifically look to what you want to be doing next can be really challenging if you’re quite sure what you want to be doing next. I’m going to be talking to you all very briefly about fan-shaped goals, which is sort of a way of mapping goals that I developed for my own indecisiveness.

So fan-shaped goals are, I’ve never talked about this on stage before, so I’m really excited. Fan-shaped goals are a way to continue to track and build towards multiple goals at the same time. So let’s say hypothetically, you’re a very very smiley round emoji and you’re not quite sure what you want to do. You know you want to move up professionally and you want to move up professionally and do different things, but you don’t know what that could mean yet. But of course, you work in devrel, you talk to interesting people all the time. So you’ve got a couple different ideas. You say, “Well, I’ve seen a lot of things in the field. I’ve met a lot of people. Maybe I want to found my own thing next. Maybe I want to do my own start-up. But also I could go back and work as a dev for a while. I could get back into these technical skills and sharpen them back up”. It’s like well… “or maybe I want to go back into education. Maybe I want to teach at a boot camp or work in a community education initiative”. By mapping all of these out, you’re able to say all of these are three or four or five or, don’t do 12, possible careers that I could go into, places I could move from here and this way, when you look at the different activities you could do, the different things you could learn, you’re able to say, ‘Well, I wanted to build a tutorial about how to use pink widgets. So I built a pink widget demo and I wrote up an in-depth tutorial. I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to record this because I think this both builds towards my goals of maybe teaching someday, but this also really sharpens up that I’m developing and that I’m developing interesting things”.

No model is perfect and not every activity you’re going to do fits everything. If I say, “Wow, I’m going to take this course about entrepreneurship or I’m going to specifically network with investors just in case I ever want to follow my own thing someday. That’s probably only going to serve me if I go into founding my own thing”. It’s not necessarily going to lead to anything else, but it still gives you a weird, triangle-based way to track what you’re doing and what kinds of areas you’ve been focusing on quite a bit and what kinds of areas you might want to continue to further invest in.

The challenge about trying to say here are the places you could go next, here’s what you could do next is that many of you are already working in developer relations. You already know that there’s too much out there. These are the folks that I’ve talked to who are former devrel in the past two weeks. I’ve talked to folks who did found their own things, who are back in education, who are somehow got to be investors (and I still don’t understand how that works) who had a lot of money. I’ve chatted to somebody who’s a tech journalist, but if you come and chat to me after class, you’re going to be able to say, “Oh, actually, “I’ve been looking at doing this other thing,” or “I met somebody else who’s doing this.” We’re incredibly lucky working in developer relations because we’re able to build these networks and learn in the field and genuinely, I cannot imagine any kind of tech job that isn’t aerospace, that isn’t within reach within a couple years of work. Thank you so much. I promised you ugly cats so you can like go ahead and put on a polite face?

Audeince: Aww.

Jess: Oh, I’ve never gotten one of those before. Thank you so much.

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