Why Target needed dev rel to attract and retain engineers


Ana Bahr speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Ana Bahr

Getting developers to sign-up for API keys isn’t the only form of dev rel.

Target created a dev rel program to cultivate its growing internal team of software engineers.

In this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Ana Bahr talks through how this program came about and shares details of the activities that support the Target tech brand through community.


So I’m here this afternoon. My goal is to challenge your perceptions of developer relations and the use cases for developer relations. And I’m going to do that by just telling my story and my journey into dev rel at Target over the last five years.

So I’m going to start by introducing myself because this is my story. I was a history major at a local community college in Minnesota where I grew up and I used my degree to get into politics. I worked at the state legislature for four years and then finally got out into the private sector, thankfully when Target hired me as an administrative assistant in the technology space. So that is how I ended up in technology.

I was hired in 2012. Twenty-fifteen is when I started doing what we now think of as developer relations. But that is the story I’m going to tell. Just some fun facts about me. My name is changing. I’m changing my name in October of this year. So if you’re looking for me later. It’s going to be Ana Dachel, very soon. Very excited. That is my wonderful fiancé and our newly adopted puppy Jackson Tiberius because we love “Star Trek.”

So yeah. So my goals for today why did Target need this? How did we start? What are we doing and what’s continuing to bring value to Target and what can this mean for you?

Why is Target at DevRelCon?

So let’s get going. I’m just going to briefly explain how I ended up here. About a year ago, maybe a little less than a year ago, my boss and one of our developer development talks said, “Hey, Ana, we think we invented this thing, but we’re pretty sure we didn’t.”

So you should go out in the marketplace and figure out who’s doing something similar to you. There has to be someone out there doing things similar. You should benchmark.

So I did a lot of Googling and talking to my engineering community and I came across the DevRel Collective. And I met a nice gentleman named Matt Broberg, who was a fellow Minnesotan. So shout out to Matt. And we had a chat on the phone and he introduced me to this book, which if you have not read it, you should. And I had a wonderful moment where I realized this is exactly what I’ve been doing.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one, and this is why for the last four years, when I be in an awkward social event and my mother’s friend would say, “What is it that you actually do?” I would say, “Okay, I’m gonna explain it like this. I’m Jane and I’m Jane Goodall and the technical community, they’re like the gorillas.”

And I can kind of understand like how their culture works. I understand the fabric of their culture. I understand how they communicate. I can communicate with them and they’re not afraid of me. I can approach them and I advocate for them and their natural resources to the rest of the…

So that is how I’ve explained myself the last four years. So when I read this, I’m like, “I’ve been doing dev rel.”

Support the things that engineers care about

So this has been my mission for the last four years. Support the things that Target engineer’s care about. That’s it. That is why I have a job at Target. It goes on to say this allows our engineers to build cool crap for Target and Target guests. But the important thing is that I’m here to support the things that Target engineers care about.

So let’s go on the history journey of why do we need this. 2014, Target was facing some challenges, not unfamiliar to many other enterprise companies, big retailers. I was an admin at the time. I was supporting the senior director of target.com digital and Target IT was at the same 70% contractors. That’s the one I wanted to point out specifically.

And we wanted to change that at Target, we wanted to transform the way we did technology. So we were hiring at a crazy rate. And I was the admin at target.com. So I was onboarding. I onboarded 65 engineers in nine months. It’s a lot just for me to onboard.

Changing workspaces

And as they were coming in, they wanted different things. They wanted to tear down the cubes, have different space. This is actual historical documentation of that time. I’m a history major, so I love historic documentation.

So I was tasked to get the things that they needed. My boss at the time, he went to our CIO at the time and said, “Hey, we need funds to go create a new space for our engineers. I’m going to call them start up funds and you’re not going to ask questions. We’re just going to go and build something for these engineers.” And our CIO said, “Okay,” gave it to him and then he turned, gave it to me because I was his admin. He said, “This is your budget. Go do the things they want you to do.”

I’m just gonna tell you a fun story just to illustrate more about what this was like here at Target at this time. This is something you all know what this is, Thunderbolt display, something our engineers wanted, but this was not standard equipment five years ago at Target.

So I took some of that budget and I bought a whole bunch of Thunderbolts and they were delivered to Target and they sat in our mail room for a long time because there was no one to deploy them because this was not standard equipment.

So myself and a group of engineers, we went and we hauled them down the street. This is, if you’ve been to Minneapolis, this is Nicolette Mall, and we piled them up at my desk and when an engineer would start at Target, it would say, “Welcome to Target. Grab your monitor.”

Now, this might not seem that unusual if you’re working in a small startup or somewhere scrappy like that, but Target is a major retailer, major enterprise. It was very strange, but that was our way of hacking down the jungle and building this new world and the space started to look a little more like this.

Becoming a dev rel

Why do I tell you all this? Why does this matter? Well, this was how I was becoming the person the engineers and you could get things done for them. This is how I was becoming known as someone that could build the world they wanted and move that forward. So I was becoming a dev rel and I didn’t even know it.

So some of the things they were coming to me for or organizations that they were volunteering for. They said, “Can we use some of this budget to sponsor these things?” First robotics was one of them. So these are some of my early ones, that’s why I picked this for the slide. First robotics, mini star, which is a twin city’s tech organization that’s fantastic. And Skyway Software Symposium, which was a meet-up group that some of our engineers from Target wanted to organize and they wanted support from Target.

So we started hosting meet-ups and I started learning about what are meet-ups and the power of buying beer and pizza for the engineers. So these are all things that I was doing in 2014 as an admin.

Transforming into a product based organization

2015, we got our new CIO, Mike McNamara, and his directive was to build a culture around engineers. So that was fortunate because that’s what we had been doing. And all our Target technology was now transformed into a product-based organization.

Prior to that, the only team that was really working in a product way was our team, target.com digital. Now, the rest of Target has followed suit and all the leaders from these different areas are saying, “We need to keep doing those things we were doing before. We need more meet-up support. We need to sponsor conferences, we need to build a community that our engineers want.”

Formalizing dev rel

So how did we start formalizing what we think of now is dev rel at Target? There were some problems. The leaders who were funding these things like meet-ups and conferences were doing so at their discretion and the budget was not centralized, so there were gaps and inefficiencies and the main point of contact for most of the organizations and for the engineers was me and I had another job. So I was an admin.

So I went to my boss and I said, “If we want to keep doing this and be serious about it, you need to give me a full-time job to do this.” And what do you know? He said, “Okay, we should do that.”

And he got some other leaders together and they went to our brand new CIO and said, “We need to create this role we’ve never heard of for this person who’s an admin to go and build a community of engineers.” And he said yes. So that was huge.

So in 2016, I became what we are now called, we called at that time the Tech Brand Coordinator and I had a full-time job to do this, which was daunting because up until then, I had been advocating for my pockets of engineers that I knew but now I was tasked to represent the whole entire technology team at Target, 4,000 people.

So what do I need to do? I asked myself some questions and I put these up here because I mean, they seem very simple, but it’s foundational to how I’ve approached community building at Target and continues to be the same approach I take with everything that we do for community building.

So what is actually happening? What exists, grassroots, what’s there? Should we actually be doing it? And if so, let’s lean in and support it. But how can I figure out what those things are?

Finding engineer leaders

I found those engineer leaders. Now, when I say leaders, I don’t mean like the people with the titles. I mean the people that other engineers are listening to and going to for advice. Those people that were pushing monitors down the street for their peers, those are the engineer leaders that I went to.

And I pulled them together in a committee of sorts, a group. And we spent six months. It took us that long to discover where across Target, everything that was going on for community. And we voted on the things that we actually wanted to do and we came out with a strategy.

So this is what we decided. These were the buckets that we thought were most important for us to be focusing on. And they’re still the same buckets today. So two years ago, when we came out with this strategy, this is what we continue to do.

Why is strategy important?

So why was this important, that we had now a head count, an official budget, and a strategy? This validated and protected the work that we feel is important for our engineering community. A leader that would be sponsoring first robotics wouldn’t just leave Target and then have that sponsorship drop for that organization.

If I got hit by a bus, someone else would get hired into my role and that sponsorship would continue. It was very important in new for at least our community and companies like Target. It implemented strategy, monitor for you to your growth, and something I really want to call out.

What this looks like at Target

The work that we were doing the work that I was doing was complimentary to recruiting, but completely separate. This is not about sales, this was about doing something for our engineers, by our engineers to support the things they care about.

So I kind of rushed through all that, but I kind of wanted to breeze through just like a laundry list of all the things that we’re doing today. So you kind of can see what it looks like at Target.

We have a weekly tech lunch started. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Started with some engineers just in a room sharing with each other and bringing their lunch. But it has grown to, every week, we always have an engineer that demos.

We have an inner conference which is our internal tech conference that happens once a year. We just had our last one a few weeks ago and there were over 900 attendees. This is a two-day conference with lightning talks, workshops, and full talks the second day. And this gives our engineers a chance to practice in front of their peers as well as share information that we can’t share externally.

CodeRED Hackathon, this is biannual. It happens twice a year and we have about 500, 600 attendees. And engineers form their own teams and work on whatever they want to. This is now going to be a two-day hack for the first time. The next one’s in August. And I’m proud to say that some of the ideas that have come out of this hackathon have turned into actual products at Target.

We have Demo Day, this is quarterly and this is a chance for all of our product teams to share out, over a thousand people attend this every quarter, including the members of the business or board of directors. And this really elevates the position of the engineer within our company, which is very important to our work.

So I’m the only full-time staffer who does all of these things that you’re seeing. I could not do that alone. I do that with my volunteer events team. They are wonderful people who really want to shape the community that they’re in and this gives them an outlet to do that. I spend a lot of my time recruiting and supporting this group. They’re my advocates, they’re my community advocates. And that is a really important aspect of my job.

Communicating effectively

How do I communicate with everyone? So our engineers notoriously ignore their emails. They get very frustrated with the corporate shiny plastic corporate speak. So we have enterprise Slack at Target and I created a Slack channel called the Tech at Target a little over a year ago.

And I told my boss, “This could be a metric, We’ll see how many people opt-in.” It’s a little over a year ago. This screenshot was taken just this year, April, though right now we have 971 people. So we did pretty well for passive people who have joined as well as active people who are posting in there things that we can volunteer for and all the events that we’re doing.

We have t-shirts. I know if you heard this, if you heard the swag, it’s talks that were in here a little earlier, but yeah, we have t-shirts. I’m representing one because Rebecca, one of our engineers designed this, she won the design challenge and we live-printed these at Intercon last month, which was really fun. But we have budget at Target just for swag, which is really important. Stickers as well. Representing the Github. Dr. Kether. That was my old laptop.

External community

So that’s all internal. Externally, we do a lot of things in the community, especially in the K12 philanthropy space. But these are two events I want to specifically call out because engineers came to me and said, “I have a dream about something that I want to create. Will you help me do it?” And we’re able to do that. I have the means and the budget to do that.

So the first one, the top one TWIST stands for Target women in Science and Technology. We had some women engineers come to me and say that they wanted to provide mentorships and awards for young women in our community who had displayed at the students in tech.

So we bring them onsite, they get to meet our CIO, and they’re given a year-long mentorship. We’ve done three of them. We’re planning your next one for October. The lower one was a group of African-American engineers that came to me and said, “Let’s invite inner-city school to Target. Let’s have them a full day of different things, virtual reality, Arduino classes, let’s like get them hands-on with technology and also engage with them.” So that is our Target tech experience day and we are planning our third one of that as well.

So this is a long laundry list of the things that we support, not meant to be read, it’s just supposed to look impressive, which I’m very proud of it. So it is.

One thing I wanted to call out is most of these things that Target gives our funding to you is local to the twin cities. I made a conscious choice to do that because our funds matter a whole lot more to those organizations in the twin cities than they do to some of the larger organizations.

And yeah, I’m really proud of, you can see open source on there. We’ve been sponsoring. That’s actually me at minibar, one of our things giving our sponsor pitch.

We created a tech blog, tech.target.com. if you want to check it out. I’m proud of it. I created it entirely with volunteers and it’s entirely volunteer-maintained as well. And we post just about a blog post a week or we try to, it’s just me kind of managing that. So we do our best, but it’s really interesting and it gives our engineers a platform to share their work, but also, it gives them recognition from the community and then also uplifts the work we’re doing at Target.

I’m just going to briefly touch on open source. My work is a lot more upstream of the formalized open source office that we have at Target. We did recently just launched opensource.target.com. off of our tech.target.com. site if you’re interested to hear more about the open source work that we’re doing. But we needed to create a culture that was supportive of open source and learning and giving back in order to actually do this. So that’s more of what I do.

And speakers. So it’s very important that we get our engineers out speaking from Target and there can be challenges in a big organization. My job is to provide them air cover. We also give them a pathway of practicing so they can go to a tech lunch, they can go to Intercon, then they can go to a local conference and maybe a national one. And they provide that pathway, some workshops of finding an inner talk. We try to get people who wouldn’t necessarily self-nominate to speak to get out and speak.

What’s the value?

So what’s the value? I already said this is about retention, doing the things our engineers care about and that this is separate, but complementary to recruiting.

This quote was also from Mary Thengvall’s book. And I really identify with it because this is a big part of the value that I bring to Target. We have like the business, the shiny corporate site, and we have our engineering community side and they’re often at odds with each other.

So they need a bridge, someone that can help translate that to each other. And I often share messages that either side doesn’t want to hear, so it can be a little lonely. But I’m here to serve both sides.

Keys for success

And some of the key six success in my role have been because there’s a me, there’s accountability for all of the money that we’re spending for Target. All the money that we’re spending for the engineers at Target out of my budget, I believe in every single cent. Like I can answer for why I spent that and that’s very important.

Authenticity because as I said, the engineers don’t always trust or like that shiny corporate side.

Focus, because there’s so many amazing things, programs, and initiatives and ways that the engineers want to change their community, but how do we choose the right things to go after and lean in on those things?

Diplomacy, because I’m that bridge between the company and the engineers.

Visibility and availability. This is very important. I am the one, I personally brand myself to my Target engineers and make sure I’m present at all events, at meet-ups, at evening things. I’m out talking to everyone. The main part of my job is to drop everything and go have coffee with an intern or a VP. I mean, it spans everything. But I’m the person that they can come to with their stories and the things that they want to see.

Creativity. I have a full-time job to do this so I can be very creative about what we should be going to next. And passion, very passionate about my job. And I get to share the stories back to you all to the local community and to inside our business.

So in the last quick minute, I’m going to wrap this up, like what could this mean for you? Today, no company can make, deliver, or market its product effectively without technology. And the subtitle of Mary Thengvall’s book was technical communities are the key to success.

So who are the ones that build these technical communities? It’s us, it’s us in this room. So that means that every company that makes, delivers, or markets a product will need us. And I think that that is where this is going.

There’s a large frontier of all these companies that will need dev rels. So my friend James Tiberius Kirk would say, “Let’s boldly go into the frontier.” Let’s work together to build the kind of diverse and inclusive communities that we want to work in.

And I have to say five years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be here in San Francisco, but I am here and who knows what the next five years will bring. So I look forward to being on this journey with you all. Thank you.

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