From Pro Athlete to Developer Relations

Tonya Sims shares her journey from playing professional basketball, through sales, and into DevRel.

January 17, 2023

Tonya Sims

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Tonya Sims

Python Developer Advocate

Deepgram

Wisconsin (USA)

Previous companies:

  • Vonage

Key takeaways

  • Tonya is a self-taught developer whose career started in pro sports
  • Storytelling is an essential part of DevRel and you can learn it
  • DevRel is hard work! It is fun but it’s not all travel
  • Don’t burn bridges because DevRel is a small world

Tonya’s video

What were you doing before DevRel?

Before I got into DevRel, I was doing a lot of other different things. I don’t have a computer science degree or anything like that.

I went to college and I majored in Business and I also played division one basketball. After I graduated, I went and played professional basketball in Poland and also in the WNBA.

After retiring from pro sports, I worked in sales. That’s just what a lot of former athletes do. They go and work in sales. I did pharmaceutical sales for a couple of years, and then I packed up, moved to Chicago from Wisconsin, and I started working as an executive assistant. That was in a large financial company within their tech department where I was working for the CTO of the company doing a lot of like secretary type tasks.

And I saw all the cool stuff everybody was doing who was working in tech field for that company. And I was like, “You know, I wanna do this too”. So I ended up transitioning into a role as a computer operator, swapping out tapes in a data center. From there I taught myself how to code; so, I’m all self-taught. Then I got an internship in programming. And from there I’ve worked as everything from QA, through software developer, and now as a Developer Advocate.

What made your consider a career in DevRel?

I started to consider a career in DevRel when I was coming back into the workforce. I was out of work for several years due to some head trauma. And during that time I started learning Python.

Before that I started out with some other languages and I finally found my passion in Python. The community is very supportive. I love the syntax and the language itself.

I started teaching Python back in my hometown to a group of middle school and high school aged girls. And it was just such a phenomenal experience. So I started learning more about DevRel and I thought that would be a great way to combine my skills, having worked in tech before, having been in sales, having a little bit of writing experience, and my career in sports. Because in sports you have to be a team player and that means you have to have really good communication skills. So that’s how I started considering a career in DevRel. I thought it would just be a really good fit for me.

What did you think about DevRel that you now know is wrong?

I think there’s a general perception that DevRel is glamorous. People think you’re flying on planes and you’re traveling to all these places. Yes, you probably will have to travel depending on the job that you have, but DevRel is a lot of hard work.

I think the main reason is because you have to do a lot of different types of tasks. You have to code, you have to write content, you have to deliver talks, you have to be a guest on podcasts, you have to create videos, and you have to do a lot of context switching. Sometimes, that can be mentally exhausting.

Another thing that I thought about DevRel but that I now know was wrong was that you really don’t have to have a huge social media following. I’m sure it helps, especially in some companies or positions, but I don’t think it’s required. My social media following is not too big. It’s growing but I didn’t have tens of thousands of followers before I got hired into my first DevRel job.

What did you think about DevRel that turned out to be right?

When I was growing up I always thought I was going to be a fiction novelist. From as young as I can remember, I had this wild imagination and I started taking all these creative writing courses in middle school and high school.

Having that writing skill is very important for DevRel. You have to be a good writer. And if you don’t think you’re a good writer, you can always develop that skill. You also really have to be a good storyteller.

And once again, that’s a skill that you can work on as you get into your first DevRel role. I’m a pretty good storyteller when it comes to writing. I did have to work a little bit more on storytelling by voice. Some of my best performing content pieces use elements of storytelling in them. I started my first role in DevRel pretty much during the height of the pandemic.

Something else that turned out to be right is, that you have to be really good at building relationships and community building. That’s very important. Part of your role in DevRel is to nurture the developer community. And you have to have good relationships with people, and you absolutely do not wanna burn bridges. Number because you just don’t want to be doing that but also because DevRel is a very small world and so everyone knows each other.

When did you start to learn about DevRel?

I started to learn about DevRel in a Slack channel for a group of woman developers. Someone posted a DevRel and the job post mentioned that having prior teaching experience was a plus. So that intrigued me and I thought it was a good fit for my skillset. I had the technical background, I’m a good communicator, I love teaching, and I didn’t just want to sit behind a desk pumping out code all day. That just doesn’t fit my personality. I love to code, but I also like to get out there and meet people.

What individuals or communities influenced your DevRel journey?

The Developer Avocados and DevRel Weekly newsletters were helpful when I was trying to get into DevRel.

I also put a message into the Slack for Woman in Tech asking for someone with DevRel experience to tell me more about it as a career. People literally started reaching out to me and put they put me in contact with a heavy hitter in the DevRel space, and I’m so grateful for her. I just had this wonderful conversation with her, and she gave me great advice about DevRel and also tips for interviewing.

How did you find out about DevRel opportunities?

I found my initial role in DevRel on Twitter. A lot of DevRel folks are very active on Twitter. So I would say a lot of job opportunities are there.

Linkedin, of course, and there’s also some job boards dedicated specifically to DevRel. For the job I’m in now at Deepgram, as I was saying earlier, DevRel is a very small world. So I was actually referred to Deepgram by somebody in the DevRel space. I’m very grateful for that referral.

What skills gaps did you identify?

I would say being able to tell a story through voice. I didn’t have as much experience in storytelling through voice.

I’ve done many talks and presentations before but I felt like I was a better story writer than I was at telling stories by voice. I think storytelling is so important. I’ve mentioned it a few times here. Developers definitely want tactical info, like when you’re presenting to them, but they also wanna be entertained too, and you have to be able to keep their attention during a presentation. So that’s why storytelling is so important.

I addressed that gap by taking a storytelling class here in Milwaukee where I live and I hired a storytelling teacher. I also started watching videos and courses on storytelling and just started practicing. And that’s how I became much better at storytelling by voice.

How did you make yourself stand out from the crowd?

I think it was really my resume that set me apart. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a referral.

My experience in teaching really helped me a lot to stand out from the crowd, especially teaching to kids because that let people know that I was able to break down complex subjects into easy, digestible pieces. It wasn’t like the pro-athlete stuff that got me in the door.

How was the recruiting process?

For both my first dev job and the one I have now at Deepgram, I heard back like really, really quickly. Of course, it helps to have that referral so they can get you in the door quicker.

Both of my DevRel jobs had different interview processes. For the first I had maybe four interviews and just a few for the other position.

In terms of the tasks that they had us do during the interviews, I had to build a project using Python and using their API. Then I had to create like a slide deck and present what I’d built to the team, including the tech lead. For the other position I just had to create a slide deck about their product, and they gave me room to suggest any improvements to their product offering.

The most difficult part about the recruiting process for DevRel is the anxiety Yes, the anxiety about hearing back, because these roles are so sought after. I think it’s very important to send a follow up thank you email to each person that you interview with. It’s just courteous and it really helps you to build relationships. Everyone was also so nice and warm and welcoming, which makes it a little bit easier when you’re interviewing.

There were no FANG type interview questions, like them asking me to code a sorting algorithm or to describe the time complexity of soemthing. Your experience will depend, though, on the culture of the company where you’re interviewing.

Has your view of DevRel changed since working in it?

Not that much. I absolutely love it and I can’t see myself doing anything else, to be honest.

I love that I get to help nurture the Python developer community at Deepgram and grow those relationships. The first DevRel job I had was for a communications API com company. It was a little bit heavier on the coding side, working on their SDKs. But I wanted to do other things as well, besides coding.

I wanted to write more content and do more tech talks while still keeping my coding still sharp. And then I also had an interest in artificial intelligence, and that’s what really drew me in to Deepgram because we are an AI speech transcription company. So I really get to learn a lot about AI, machine learning, and deep learning and natural language processing. And that’s something that really excites me.

What advice would you give to DevRel hopefuls?

Please do not burn any bridges. Have good relationships with your managers and your peers at your current workplace because you’re gonna need them eventually. And if you don’t have good relationships with them, I would definitely advise you to repair those relationships.

And if you want to leave a job that’s fine. People leave jobs all the time. But make sure that you’re leaving your job in a professional way. This is gonna help you tremendously in DevRel because a big part of your role is gonna be relationship building with developers. And if you have great relationships with people, it’ll be easier for them to get on board and start using what you’re offering.