31 May, 2023
We talk more about mental health these days but, for many, it’s still a taboo subject. To mark Mental Health Awareness Month, this episode of DevRel Roundtable looks at how mental health issues impact those of us working in developer relations.
Hosts Matthew Revell and Rebecca Marshburn are joined by Open Sourcing Mental Illness founder Ed Finkler, Rain Leander who has written openly about her own experience, David G Simmons who also has shared how ADD and depression have affected him, and Wesley Faulkner who has spoken previously on neurodiversity.
DevRel and community management are both jobs where we are exposed to the ups and downs of other people’s lives. For some, there’s a potentially exhausting amount of travel. And let’s not forget that DevRel does seem to be a discipline where expectations between management and practitioners are often mismatched. All of this can lead to stress and, of course, burnout.
Huge thanks go to Common Room for sponsoring this episode!
Matthew Revell: Matthew runs developer relations consultancy Hoopy, as well as DeveloperRelations.com, and the DevRelCon event series. He works with companies to help them build and execute developer relations strategies. Matthew also creates content and research to help DevRel professionals become more effective. With his team at Hoopy, he works with clients around the world to advise them on developer relations, developer marketing, and developer community.
Rebecca Marshburn: Rebecca is Head of Community at Common Room, connecting people doing things, and sharing stories about other people connecting people doing things across community platforms. She is also co-host of the Serverless Chats podcast.
Rain Leander: Rain is a longstanding DevRel professional who has previously worked as at companies including Cockroach Labs and Red Hat.
David G. Simmons: David is Head of Developer Relations at Otterize and has a wealth of experience in Developer Relations, having worked in senior roles at companies such as StarTree, Camunda, and QuestDB.
Wesley Faulkner: Wesley’s experience spans multiple facets of the technology industry. With over 20 years in product marketing, product management, strategic planning, and software/hardware implementation, he is currently Senior Community Manager for NAMER at AWS, and co-host of bot the Just Work and Community Pulse podcasts.
Matthew: Well, hello and welcome to another DevRel Roundtable. My name is Matthew Revell, and I’m joined by my co-host Rebecca Marshburn. Hi, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Hey, it’s so good to see you, Matthew. As you said, I’m Rebecca Marshburn, and I’m the Head of Community at Common Room, and it’s so nice to be here cause I’ve been away, I think, for the last two episodes, and now I’m back! And I’m really excited for this topic because, as you said in the green room, if you will, it’s a weightier topic. It’s a meatier topic, but it’s also a really important and necessary topic. So thanks for having me back for this one.
Matthew: Yeah, of course. It’s great to have you back. So what is that weightier, meatier topic? Well, this is Mental Health Awareness Month, May 2023 at the time of recording. DevRel, community management are both roles, disciplines, where we are exposed to the ups and downs of other people’s lives. But also there’s travel, which can be exhausting. There are, in some companies mismatched expectations as well, where that introduces stress. And quite often DevRel people talk about burnout. At DevRelCon we’ve had a number of talks on burnout, and I think we probably will again at DevRelCon London in September.
But to actually address DevRel as a profession, community management as a profession, and how that impacts on our own mental health, how we can recognise the signs that something might not be right, is perhaps a topic we haven’t covered in great detail previously.
So why is developer relations, community management, particularly a discipline, a job where people do seem to suffer from burnouts? What are those things that you should be looking out for? And what can our teammates, our employers, our communities do to help?
Today we have some people who are really working hard on those questions, and to make people in tech generally more able to deal with mental health issues.
So, about 20 years ago as a student, I went through a period of depression and various things had got on top of me, and I went and sought help. And over a period of time, I was able to develop ways of coping with that. But even having been through that, I’m also someone who doesn’t always recognise the signs that maybe not all is well, and perhaps I need to to work on that. So I’m looking forward to hearing some of the advice and things that people have to share today.
Rebecca: Matthew, thank you for sharing that. I know all of us are probably searching for words a little bit more. And that’s because I think even though we all believe that this is an extremely important topic to talk about, it’s also a vulnerable and more personal topic to talk about. And I think when we’re in those spaces, we want to hold space for each other, but we also need to hold space for ourselves, and it might be a little harder to find the words, and it might be a little harder to say the words correctly, right? I wouldn’t say that there is a correct way to say it, but I think we have that voice in our heads that’s like, ‘’oh, I’m usually, you know, smoother, or I can usually articulate my point more specifically’.
I think what’s so important about this discussion and what we’ve all talked about is that we really want to hold space for each other to be the ‘perfect imperfect’ version of themselves. So thank you for sharing that, and thank you for taking the time to find the words that you needed.
That being said, someone who is also very well known for holding the space for others to talk about these types of topics, and bringing these types of topics to other people in the room, outside of the room, through technology, in the technology space, is Ed Finkler at OSMI. So, OSMI stands for Open Sourcing Mental Health. That’s actually not the ‘I’, so I’m going to let Ed tell us what that means. But it is a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness, educating, and providing resources to support mental wellness in the tech and open source communities.
OSMI began when Ed began the brave, often difficult process of speaking about his personal experiences as a web developer and open source advocate with mental health issues and concerns in public at tech conferences in 2013. He’s super knowledgeable on the topic, both with personal experiences, and through research and developing a community and a non-profit around this space.
So really excited to have Ed here to help us understand a little bit more deeply the complexities of this, and how broad this conversation reaches, and how much broader it still needs to reach. So, welcome Ed. Thank you so much for being here.
Ed: Well, thank you for having me. That was a very kind introduction. I am really glad to be here, and to just talk about what my experiences have been, and kind of what I’ve seen, particularly amongst developer relations and the hard road. A lot of you folks really walk on that. So yeah, I’m excited to be here.
Matthew: The first question is, can we get the OSMI correct? What does the ‘I’ stand for?
Ed: Oh, sorry. The name is Open Sourcing Mental Illness. We dabbled a little with some branding changes that I think we’re kind of calling back on. So, as we restarted, some people were talking about Open Sourcing Mental Health, and we kind of looked at that, but we decided to go back and use that term ‘illness’ on purpose. So that was kind of a conscious decision I think we made in the last six months as we relaunch. Also as a lot of in-person conferences and events have really started spinning back up, and things are a lot more active now. So yeah, Open Sourcing Mental Illness is the name.
Rebecca: Thank you for that correction. So as I briefly touched on, since 2013, you’ve expanded this research, and this discussion, and this dialogue, and through that there’s also some more health stats and mental illness stats that you have. Maybe you could kind of set the context for us. While a lot of it is location or geography based, at least give us some sort of framework or foundation to work from in terms of how this affects people in the population. Looking at our colleague, or our teammate, or our neighbour, and perhaps knowing and understanding that people experiencing this are not alone. I think that numbers are quite helpful in understanding that context.
Ed: I’d like to talk about my personal stuff a little bit first. I’ll tell you a little bit about that. I now think I have a better understanding. I have ADHD of some variant. It’s not very well described by the DSM or things like that, so that makes it difficult. Sorry, the DSM is sort of the book that the whole medical industry uses to say, ‘this is what a disease is’, and it’s sort of like the official ‘that’s a disease’. And if it’s not in the DSM, it gets really hard to pay for because they can’t code it on insurance. Well, I have ADHD, which is not well described in the DSM, I can tell you that, and that does impact things because of that.
But also then along with that, I have generalised anxiety disorder. Now I’ve been diagnosed with those things. What do those things mean? It’s different from diseases that we know about, viral and stuff like that. But it really just means this is the way my brain works, and it works kind of differently than other people’s. As a consequence, that means that I have difficulty in some areas, doing normal life things, right? And the big thing for me I think my whole life has been emotional regulation, and feeling like I was just different from other people. It seemed like things affected me differently, and more intensely than other people. And I’ve really felt like that since I was a kid.
That I think informs a lot of stuff and feeds into why you end up feeling that way as an adult, or feeling isolated, or alone, or apart as an adult. But what I found when I started doing research into it is that not only is it mental health, or mental health issues, or behavioural health issues. Really almost all of these things are based on how people behave. They can include substance disorders, things like that. Things that change your behaviour in some way, or make you unable to do things.
About every ten years, the World Health Organisation does a global survey on disease, and consistently the last two have found that the burden that these conditions put on populations worldwide is in fact extremely high. I think in the 2010 survey, I believe they said that that category of disease was the highest contributor to days lost to disease. I think it was measuring how it affects your life, and how it affects work and things like that. Okay.
So I think about that, but I think about that then in the context of speaking about it versus other significant medical conditions, health conditions, and how we deal with those in society, and how that impacts how we individually do things.
In that World Health Organisation survey 2010, it talked about the impact of behavioural health issues, and they found that the impact and burden of disability that a major depressive disorder puts on a person is very comparable to that of multiple sclerosis.
And I’d be interested in hearing if anybody with multiple sclerosis was ever told: ‘have you tried drinking more water?’ Right? I don’t think that we treat these things the same way, even though they are serious health conditions that have significant impacts on our ability to work and function in society. We’re generally afraid to talk about it. And the numbers that we see in our annual surveys are that, generally, I think I could safely say, well over half, I think over three quarters of people still feel like it’s likely or certain that something bad will happen to them if they reveal a mental health condition to say a supervisor, or somebody at work.
Now compare that to physical stuff, like breaking your leg. Our numbers tell us people are not afraid to talk about things like that. And they are afraid to talk about things like this. So clearly there’s a problem here. Here’s how much it impacts us. Here’s how we actually treat it. Most problems don’t get solved by kind of ignoring them, or kind of sticking ’em in a bag and hoping they go away. So what do you do sort of organisationally and stuff like that?
Basically, a lot of what we’re trying to advocate for is that there’s an extremely good economic argument, and also just a moral argument, for simply putting some basic time in for organisations to actively engage in mental wellness in their workplace. I believe that workplaces don’t understand how significant an impact it has, how it improves retention, how it improves productivity, and saves them money down the road.
I found that most people nowadays seem like they want to help and they’ll say: ‘Hey, I wanna figure out what to do’. And so that’s changing a little bit. It used to be 23 years ago they said: ‘Yeah, well we pay you, and we really don’t care about the rest of it. That’s your job’. So, that kind of ignores the reality that in the US, for almost every person, the workplace is the proxy to healthcare. And so not having a job means no healthcare. So yeah, and I think that’s maybe a big thing. I think I just want to put in a context here. I’ll give you one more thing.
One of the things that I think, especially folks who are doing any kind of management, or if they’re C level, or they’re doing any kind of supervisory work, I do not think we have any kind of appreciation for how much control people in that position have over the happiness or emotional suffering that their employees experience.
That’s why I have to pay attention. That’s why I have to learn these things. That’s why I have to take courses, learn about this stuff. We can talk more about things like that, like mental health first aid, and stuff. But realistically, we’re talking about numbers. I can tell you right now, pre-pandemic in the US it was estimated that about one in five, 20% of people, were dealing with a diagnosable behavioural health disorder at any given time. It was already one in five of the people you work with. If it’s just the general population, some of the numbers in OSMI research suggest that rates of at least some of these things are significantly higher in the developer type, POT technology worker population.
And so, even if you just talk about one in five, realistically, does anyone think of their workplace? People reply: ‘Yes, I was aware of the 20% of people at a given time who are dealing with that’. You know, no, they absolutely weren’t. They weren’t because they were afraid to talk about it. And so, that being afraid to talk about it, that not being able to talk about it, that is what makes it so scary because we all feel like it’s not safe to talk about. We really don’t even know what to do. Even if we want to do the right things, we don’t have the info, or we don’t know where to do it.
Organisations have a responsibility. It makes huge economic sense that they actively engage in promoting the wellbeing of the people who work in the organisation.
Rebecca: Ed, thank you so much. I think just that last bit that you left us with is such a grounding thought. The general population will just take that number, right? 20%. And you’re like, okay, when you look around, let’s say you’re at a tiny startup, that’s still two people out of those 10 and did you know? Or were you one of them? And then how do you either have conversations, lead conversations, open conversations, in a space where safety is paramount? So thank you for that grounding moment about what it means for the people around us or ourselves, statistically percentage wise. I do think that at the end of the show, and we’ll also put it in the YouTube notes and stuff, we will link to things like mental health first aid, right?
And then, Victoria Tran has a great post called Mental Health and Community Management. And it goes through some of the warning signs for us to like conscientiously evaluate. Are these warning signs happening in ourselves? Do we see them in others? Or how do we open conversations with others about these signs? So we’ll definitely get to those and certainly link them in the notes as I think it’s really important.
But we’re going to bring on some of our other panellists as well, to hear some of their stories. And someone that I’m really excited to introduce because I think they have been extremely influential in talking about safety and creating safe spaces, is Rain Leander. Rain Leander is an advocate, and has been a developer advocate and evangelist for well over a decade.
I really learned a lot about this from Rain because last year at All Things Open, I had the great honour of interviewing her on the qualities that comprise a thriving open source community, and what it takes to create an enduring open source community. And so much of that was not just tech specific, but human specific.
How do communities create safe inclusive spaces for people to think differently from one another? To be themselves with experiences and perspectives that are each unique? To make mistakes and corrections with one another? And to bring that diversity of perspectives and elevate it rather than try to flatten it, if you will. And so these are all points which I think will enrich the conversation today, and we’re super happy to have you on, Rain.
Rain: Thank you so much. I feel a little bit like an imposter these days because the whole reason I started doing this, which I’m sure maybe we can relate to, is because I was not well and I happened to have this wake up call. I was with Red Hat, and I was at Red Hat Summit, and they had just launched Open Source Stories. And one of the movies that I saw was the Open Patient. And it was about these two brain tumour patients who separately decided to put their records a hundred per cent online, and effectively saved their own lives. One built a community of support that she didn’t have. And the other, another doctor saw his record and said: ‘Oh, this is what you have, this is what you need’. And the doctors he had hadn’t made that connection yet.
And after that I started talking and was like: ‘Oh, let’s normalise this’. I’m everything you said. The DSM sucks. I was fortunate though. I lived in the Netherlands for 10 years and ended up getting that space to heal from a very intense trauma. I grew up neurodivergent, and with depression and generalised anxiety as well. But I had a specific trauma that broke me, and I would probably still be broken if I had stayed in the US.
In the Netherlands, they gave me two years to heal, a hundred per cent paid full. There’s no bill from that, I got emergency services and outpatient. I can compare this with the US, where I was thrown into a hospital, only to become worse. Then I moved to the Netherlands, and they were like: ‘We don’t do inpatient for this. We would rather you be around family and support and come in every day.’ And I was just like: ‘oh my God, this is black and white’. And I’m not saying the Netherlands has it right by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m very thankful that I have that space to heal.
And the reason I feel like an imposter is that I’ve been silent for two years, and I feel like this is due to the pandemic. The pandemic happened, and we all shifted. The pressure was so different and so intense, and I completely got out of the habit of talking about what was going on, and I stopped. Honestly, this is probably the first time in three years that I’ve publicly talked about being neurodivergent and recovering, and I take fluoxetine. It’s Prozac. And I have a psychiatrist, I have a psychologist, I have a team, I have coping mechanisms.
Even over the past five weeks, I started to destabilise, because normally if you’re looking for a new job, not to brag, but it takes days to find offers. And after two weeks, I was still not only not getting interviews, but definitely not getting offers. And so I wrote a whole book about looking for work in tech, and taking care of yourself while looking for work in tech. And that’s what I needed to do, to be like: ‘Okay, remember how to care for yourself’. Because even when you do have all that education, all that knowledge, and years of stability, it can be thrown off by something like a pandemic, or looking for work for longer.
And sometimes you have to take a minute to really internalise, to reset and to care for yourself. So yeah, I’m a bit of an imposter, but I’m coming back to myself, and thank you for having me on. I’m just so thankful that you have created this space for this. It’s a serious thing within DevRel. It’s particularly intense. And I think because of the things that you mentioned, Matthew, about expectations, stress, travel, everything. Every time I go on a trip, or my partner goes on a trip, I’m like: ‘Okay, this is how I’m taking care of myself’. And yeah, it’s huge. I actually sent something off to DevRelCon London about how we take care of ourselves in DevRel, because our mental health is everything.
Matthew: Thank you Rain.
I’m going to bring in David G. Simmons. David, it was your suggestion that we cover this topic a few months back. Thank you for that. David, you’re Head of Developer Advocacy at StarTree and you’ve had a long career in the world of IoT. But I think what’s most relevant to this roundtable is that you’ve been very open recently about your own mental health, and your diagnosis with ADD. So, what does this topic mean to you?
David: Well, first of all, thanks for having me on this. And for having Rain on as well. I’m thrilled to be in the same virtual room with all of you, actually. So it’s interesting because my sort of struggle with mental health issues goes way back in time. I’m old enough that they didn’t diagnose you with ADD when you were in school. They just said that you couldn’t pay attention and you were a problem. Right? And all of my recurrent cards, like from elementary school on all said the same thing. And so, when around two years ago, I got finally diagnosed with ADD, everybody that’s known me all that time said: ‘Well, duh, you know, we all knew that’. And then I guess it was a year or so ago, I really ended up in yet another mental health crisis.
And I’m lucky enough to have a good friend of mine who I’ve known for a very long time, who is also a psychologist who called me and said: ‘Okay, what’s going on? We need to get this straightened out. There’s something going on with you, it’s not right, and we need to figure out what’s going on’. On my Twitter page, my pinned tweet is a thread about all of that and what I discovered in that process. It’s easy for me to talk about technical things. It’s harder for me to talk about personal things. And so I kind of went on both a personal and a technical thread there about what my mental health issues were, and how I discovered some solutions, and those sorts of things.
I think it was shortly after that Rain and I got together and were talking about this. And we started this DevRel Diaries project, which is languishing and is not really doing much, but it’s basically a place where anybody can go and anonymously contribute a mental health in DevRel story of their own.
So, I mean, there’s a lot to this, especially in DevRel. And I don’t know whether a lot of people gravitate towards DevRel because they have ADD, and it’s like easy to have a career where you have to do lots of different things, or what leads to that. But I know that there seems to be a lot of that, or at least there’s a lot more people in DevRel that are willing to talk about it, right? And willing to say: ‘I’ve got ADD and I’m doing this about it’.
One of the things that I think probably needs to be talked about more, and I see some of this discussion now, is substance abuse in DevRel, right? Conferences are organised around alcohol in a lot of ways. All the parties are, you know, at a bar, or drinks are served. I know, speaking for myself, I’ve been clean and sober for 37 years, and for people who are newly trying to get sober, those kinds of environments can be really hard, right? And if your life is going to conferences where all the activities are drinking, then it’s really easy to sort of start going down that hole because it’s encouraged, and it’s kind of the basis of all the entertainment, right?
I have gotten sideways with a couple of conference organisers where I have said: ‘Look, all you’re providing is alcohol. You really need to think about people who don’t drink, and provide something for them in a way that isn’t like: ‘Oh, you people go over there and drink water, kinda thing’,’ right?
To me, it’s all really interconnected. I have ADD, I have depression, I have anxiety, I have PTSD, but I still do this. I still show up every day.
I think one of the things that contributes to some of the mental health issues in DevRel is also a lot of the uncertainty that we have in this field. Turnover is very high. Burnout is very high, right? There are a lot of mismatched expectations. And that goes on all the time. ‘Mismatched expectations and we’re letting you go’, right? And now we get to start over again, right? I’m in the middle of that myself right now, and it’s sort of a vicious cycle that repeats itself in DevRel.
You know, for the folks that I manage, I was very clear with them that I worry about mental health, I worry about burnout. In most of the places I’ve worked, we had unlimited PTO. And so I was telling people, I want you taking a minimum of 30 days of PTO a year, right? Which in the US is unheard of. You get two weeks of vacation. That’s it. I’m like: ‘No, you need to take 30. That’s a full six weeks, and I want you to take at least two of them consecutively on a regular basis because burnout is so high. We do so much that we are under such stress’.
So, I’m really glad about this discussion because I think it needs to happen more. And part of the reason that I’m able to talk about this is other people that I have seen, mostly on Twitter and other places, willing to talk about their struggles with mental health, right? And me saying: ‘Oh, well they’re willing to do it. Maybe I can say a little bit, and then say a little bit more, and say a little bit more’.
I think it’s important to have talks like this, and to have spaces like this where we can make it okay for people to talk about their mental health struggles, right? A year ago I thought I was fine, and it turns out I was anything but fine. I was really at the end of my tether. One of the things about mental health is like, you know, when you break your leg, you broke your leg. But when you’re suffering from a mental health crisis, often you are the last person to know.
Rebecca: Yeah. I think you have, David, such an exemplary and humbling way of talking about it. I don’t know if you recall – because I think you’ve been able to practise talking about it and sharing it with others, maybe longer than I’ve been used to hearing about it, which I think hopefully that gap gets smaller where we’re more used to both talking, and receiving and then dialoguing about it.
But actually it was at DevRelCon Prague last year where Victoria, head of the DevRelX community, and you and I were like: ‘Oh, we all have six hours in Prague before we have to go separate ways’. And so we decided to take a long walk through the city together. And you shared some of your experiences with us, and both Victoria and I cried. I don’t know if you know that I cried, I think privately. Victoria I think cried.
It was very moving, and brave, and vulnerable of you to share that, and to share where you were. But I do remember saying to you: ‘It’s okay to cry’. And you said to me: ‘I know that’, in a kind way, you know? And I realised that I was trying to say that to you to reassure you. And really, it’s like me as a receiver has to practise how to receive it and then to dialogue about it. I think that, anyway, I’m just very humbled by the way you share, and I think it’s really amazing. So thank you.
David: I remember being able to stand in a very crowded street in Prague, telling you both something, and crying at the same time. And I’d only just met you guys, but I think that’s part of talking about mental health. If I’d broken my arm, I would’ve told you about breaking my arm, right? And this is the thing that for some reason we think of mental illnesses and these things as somehow different, and we can’t talk about them. Right? And you should just be okay. I love what Ed asked, you know, if somebody with multiple sclerosis was ever told just to drink more water! The amount of horrible advice I’ve gotten on mental health issues that you would never give to somebody with any other illness. Yeah.
Rebecca: Thank you for being here. We have one more guest to bring on to share their experience, and that is Wesley Faulkner. Wesley is a Developer Relations leader and current Senior Community Manager for North America at AWS. He’s a co-host at the Just Work and Community Pulse podcasts. He’s a founding member of Open Austin.
But one of my favourite things is something that is actually selfish of me, he’s a gentleman I’ve been lucky enough to introduce on this show twice. And it was actually the first show that I’d introduced him, where I think it was either during the show or perhaps after, but we had talked about scoping out a show about mental health. And Wesley, you said: ‘I would like to be on that episode. That’s a really important topic to me that’s really both personal, and affects people in your life, yourself, the way you approach work’. And so, really happy to have you back for this episode. Welcome.
Wesley: Thank you. It’s good to be here. I’ve enjoyed sitting in the green room, listening to the conversation. I almost felt like I was listening as part of the audience, and I almost forgot that I was going to be on. So it’s great to join everyone here, and, you know, having the space to talk about this subject, that I feel personally, really, really invested in.
The saying goes: ‘If you can speak it, you can survive it’. And so making sure that people have the permission and the outlet to be able to talk about this is, I think, one of the things that can help us actually get through some of the challenges that we all face. And I know that I’ve had my share, especially during the pandemic, where if it wasn’t for being in the DevRel collective and being able to have the times where we could share when we were struggling through whatever it was that week, I don’t know where I would be without feeling like I could be heard or understood.
Mental health and mental illness is in some ways seen as a personal failing, as someone who is either not strong enough or doesn’t know how to deal, and it doesn’t take into account the systematic, external stressors that we all are a part of. It’s just like when someone gets sick. Of course they could have worn a mask, they could have taken more vitamins, but you don’t necessarily blame the person for catching a cold, because it’s out there and it can hit you randomly. We can all go through it, and it should be seen that way, because that’s exactly how it’s experienced.
Matthew: Thanks, Wesley. As this is a DevRel roundtable, I would love to just ask this question. Why do we seem to see burnout and associated mental health struggles quite prevalently within the DevRel profession?
Wesley: I have some ideas. I definitely think it’s more prevalent. I have a few reasons for that. One is that in order to be successful or to kind of survive in the DevRel space, you have to be able to be intuitive, and you have to be empathetic to the plight of developers and the community. And when you have that, in combination with being self deterministic in terms of the ways that you fulfil that charter, that mandate, you have to be really, really creative and think more about the system that you’re operating in.
That being said, the powers that be – the employers, the people who determine your success – they may not be cut from the same cloth to the point where, from their subjective point of view, they are not able to measure that.
And so there’s a disconnect between delivering, executing, strategising, and the person evaluating that doesn’t have the same base. And we are still fairly new as a profession in DevRel. We don’t have any solid numbers for every kind of metric that needs to be tracked in order to measure the value of something. That’s one.
Two, there is a subtlety that that is required for DevRel, where you’re establishing these relationships and this path of communication that feels so subtle that it’s not detected, and thus it can be seen as not being effective, even though it is needed in order to gently kind of bring people in and bring people closer. I think a lot of business demands, say you met someone on Monday, you need to propose to them on Tuesday, and you need to get married on Wednesday.
It doesn’t work that way. That understanding and that intuitive nature is something that we understand, but we’re not being graded in the same way or with the same kind of rubric that we’re executing, and that we feel is kind of the philosophy of DevRel.
And for me, I mentioned this, if you’re part of a marginalised community, if you’re a part of a group that can be undervalued, I know myself that it can be seen as though when you’re working with management that your job is to ‘pet a cat’. The reason why I think that’s an apt analogy is because if you’ve ever pet a cat and you do it for a long time, there’ll be a point where the cat will let you know that it’s done being pet, and the way they let you know is not necessarily subtle.
That seems the same way with being under-represented in the tech structure. You’re thinking you’re doing everything right, you’re doing great. You’re given the love, and then there’s a reaction, and that reaction causes some severe harm. And so everything subsequent to that is trying to detect the slightest sense that something’s going to go wrong. So there’s a huge cognitive load with being able to try to be super hyper-vigilant about the status of this thing that you think you’re doing the right. You think you’re doing the right thing, and you just want to be able to predict when the tables will be turned and things will go horribly wrong.
That mental kind of penalty or tax really diminishes the work that you need to be doing, this creative work, this sensitive work that’s empathetic, pathetic work. And all of that is a giant formula for stress, and a formula for mental illness. I know I’m talking too much, so I will stop right there and just say, yeah, it happens. And I think all of this together from multiple sides causes the problem.
David: Wesley, that was an absolutely perfect description of it for me right now. There’s also the long tale of that, after the cat turns on you, right? There’s the whole tale of trying to figure out what happened, how you can stop it from happening again. You know, was I really terrible? Or I’m right in the middle of that now, right? Yeah. My last review was fantastic, and then a month later it’s like, nope, you’re out. And there’s that whole recovery, which we don’t necessarily have time for, right? You’ve got to go find another job. We got to get back into it. You keep going.
Rain: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s actually more prevalent, or if we just talk more. I would love to see actual numbers of tech versus non-tech, and also DevRel versus the rest of tech kind of numbers. I don’t even know if that exists. But I do appreciate that we talk about it, and I wish that it was normalised across all industries in the entire world, that people were comfortable talking about their broken legs and also their depression on Saturday night. I think that’s my only thing.
I agree with Wesley. I think because we care as part of our job, we are passionate about communities. That does expose our heart and our psychology to ‘attacking cats’, to merge all of the analogies that have been happening across the entire show. I cannot tell you how much I love ‘pet the cat’ as an analogy. Wesley, thank you for that. Also it breaks my heart.
Wesley: I also wanted to say the turnover thing is real. Rebecca, you introduced me as NAMER Senior Community Manager at AWS. Yesterday was my one year anniversary at AWS. And I’ve been doing DevRel for a while, like five years. This is the first time I’ve been in a job for a year.
Rain: Oh, wow.
Wesley: And it’s one of those things that is new to me, even though I feel that I have great ideas, great execution, I do things that I think are right. And I think I’ve been recognised externally from several different outlets, but that means nothing to some people that can choose whether or not you’re successful in their organisation. So that also illustrates how hard this industry is.
David: Well, Rain and I have been commiserating, you know, for the last few weeks about our collective situations because they’re very similar. The cats, they turned on us.
Rain: Yeah, I also had a good review, and then two months later the cat attacked. I felt like I had a good space when I lived in the Netherlands and worked for Red Hat because of two things.
One, I was in a country that treated all kinds of health very seriously. Two, I was at a company that valued developer relations very much. Three, I was in a department within the company that valued what I did and had a clear, ‘this is the expectation. This is what you do for those expectations’. And so I was with Red Hat for many years as a developer advocate.
The only reason I left was money. By the way, twins were expensive. And after that I had to make a little bit more money. But it kind of breaks my heart that AWS is a larger company. It can afford to give a little bit more time. That you also have found a place within AWS that values what you do, has that clear expectation, and then rewards you for those set expectations. And I would like to find that, again. It seems like a very low bar, but it isn’t, and that’s sad.
Matthew: We have a, I don’t want to overstate it, but kind of a crisis in DevRel management because it’s grown so rapidly. We don’t have many experienced DevRel leaders. And more importantly, we don’t have organisations that know how to have DevRel exist successfully within that organisation. And, you know, maybe that’s a contributing factor.
But Ed, in your words earlier you were saying that you feel that mental health issues are more prevalent in tech generally. And, you know, when I’ve spent a weekend digging soil or something like that, I feel a sense of satisfaction on a level that is nothing compared to anything I can do on my laptop. So is it just that we’re trying to put ourselves into a box we don’t fit into as humans?
Ed: Well, I mean, there’s some of that, and you can get into the idea of, and I certainly am pretty conscious of it, that I feel like my mind works one way and the rest of the world got different instructions. And all of their minds work that way, and the world’s kind of made for them. And I have to figure out how to adapt to them, and I think that is part of it. At least in my experience. I think that… Could you repeat the question again? I got myself off down a rabbit hole. Sorry.
Matthew: So, is it just that as human beings, we shouldn’t be sitting at a laptop for eight hours a day, trying to do things remotely, and on computers, when we are built for physical exercise?
Ed: Yeah, I mean, I think that is part of it, and I think that I would say I’m speculating entirely, but I suspect that somebody like me who has more problems with those kinds of things, I think I just notice it more and I’m more sensitive to it. But I think these kinds of things are common, and a lot of people, we just aren’t aware of it.
Rebecca: So what is one tactic that has helped you stay healthy within your community work and DevRel work? What is something a colleague and employer can do to help? So that’ll be our closing question. We need a sense of guidance for all of us as we approach this topic with more vulnerability, and hopefully more openness in the future.
Rain: As Ed started to say, you have to listen to your body. I realised that there are a lot of physical issues that you can have that are undetectable. There’s fibromyalgia, there’s physical illnesses and disorders there that doctors can do a quick test for, and ignore and can’t find. But one of the things that I became very aware of is that when something is going on with my body, I go to the doctor and do the physical test. Is there a virus? Is there something physical? Or is this my body trying to tell me that something is wrong psychologically? And I realised that that’s just being aware of yourself, and watching for that pain that Ed was talking about.
Then advocating for yourself, especially if you are in a country that doesn’t want to listen, or you have something going on that’s more difficult to detect. I would advocate all day long for my community, but when it comes to advocating for myself, I fail time and again. And I feel like that is one of the skills that we need to remember – we are part of the community as well, and therefore we need to advocate on behalf of ourselves.
As far as companies are concerned – I am not coming from very healthy places, but I think we’ve said this in several different ways – it is important to manage expectations, and make sure there are clear KPIs and that the goalpost doesn’t move. And I realise that’s difficult. Especially when a company is starting to maybe go under because of the economy, and you want to blame someone. It’s easy to blame DevRel because we are the healthy fat, we are the extra bit within a company. You don’t technically need DevRel to be successful, except that you kind of do.
So as far as companies are concerned, don’t just get a DevRel person because some venture capitalist says VC is a cheap marketing option, or an alternative sales option. Get a person, a developer advocate or a community manager because you have a community that you want managed or that you want. You have an advocate. You have a developer community that you want an advocate for. So Ed chatted in the background to us that having an externally focused option for validation seems like part of the job for DevRel. And that trains you to focus on making others happy. And it’s very hard not to do that and to protect yourself. I agree.
I think that we are really good at advocating for others. ‘I got all these people, I take care of you. I’ve got it’. And then ‘I’ll take the bullets, and the cat will scratch me’. And because of the Netherlands, I’ve started thinking about myself as like, I’m not advocating for Rain Leander, I’m advocating for Rain Leander and I am going to do the best I can for this person. And that helps because there was some sort of block around being my own superhero. I agree. What about you, Wesley?
Wesley: I guess a positive thing about this time is that there are discussions like this, but there are also some publications and other ways that people are wrapping up their own experiences. For me in my own journal, that was extremely helpful, not just to feel less alone and relate to other people’s experience, but to build up my own vocabulary. And it turns out, if you don’t have the right words to describe certain things, it’s hard to even explain to yourself what’s going on internally.
When you can’t explain what’s going on internally, that is also a barrier to telling someone externally about what you’re going through, and to work through ways to see those other markers and other resources to learn more, to deepen your knowledge, to grow your vocabulary, and to kind of unwind and untangle that jumble in the head, and realise where you can start attributing where these things come from or what triggers.
So, having that vocabulary with the immense amount of resources from the Internet is something that wasn’t available to me, I would say even five years ago. So, it’s really great that these discussions happen, that people are stepping up and letting us as consumers decode what is happening to us. And I like that this is the trend, and it doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down.
Rebecca: Thank you so much. What about you David?
David: So most of what we do in DevRel is in some sense being of service to others, right? We help developers, we help our community. We find ways to be of service to other people. And I don’t think we spend enough time finding ways to either let other people help us, or to sort of be of service to ourselves. And employers are, almost by definition, unable or unwilling to sort of be of service to their employees. It’s the other way around, right? We’re here to serve our employers and they are not here to serve us. And, we need to find ways to change that.
Matthew mentioned that there’s not a long history of DevRel management. And one of the problems that I have seen occasionally is that good developer advocates get made into managers without consideration of whether they are good managers in addition to being a good developer advocate. And there’s a difference, right?
In a large sense, being a good developer advocate is being of service to others, but it’s also sort of trying to make yourself famous, right? And it’s hard to do that and be a good manager for the people that report to you, because part of being a good manager is not making yourself famous, but making your people famous. Putting them before you and serving them. Not serving your manager, but serving the people that report to you. And there’s precious little of that I think, anywhere. But certainly, many companies are not there to serve their employees. They’re there to have their employees serve them. And, being someone whose life’s work has always sort of been about being of service to others, it’s really hard to see that.
It’s really hard in some sense to find ways to take care of myself because I’m trying to take care of, as Rain said, my community. ‘I got you, you know, I got you, I got you’. And on Saturday night, there’s nobody that’s got me, and that’s where the mental health picture comes into it. So, I’m really glad that we are able to have these discussions, and I’m also really glad that we tend to talk about this stuff more than in other places. I know for me, having other people talk about it has made it more okay for me to talk about it. And I’m hoping that the more we talk about it, the more we make it okay for more people to talk about it, and not just in DevRel, that we can sort of infect tech in general with this willingness to talk about our defects and our struggles.
It makes everybody more empathetic, right? There’s that saying that, you never know what struggles somebody else is going through unless they talk about it. So it’s important to make it a safe place for people to talk about it and not judge them for it. To say there won’t be consequences for this, for talking about this. Then making sure that there aren’t actually consequences is the hard part, right? Often we say that, and then people come out with it, and then it turns out there are consequences. So if you’re going to say there won’t be consequences for this, it’s really important to make sure that there aren’t.
Ed: I’m kind of naturally externally focused and that kind of person anyway. When I was a kid, I used to come and do book reports on Bigfoot, and ask to do them in second grade and talk in front of the class about Bigfoot. So that was weird, right? I just do that naturally. I was talking to PJ Hagerty. He is like: ‘DevRel relations is what you have been doing all the time anyway’. Writing blogs and stuff. I just started doing that stuff cause I wanted to. So I’m really externally focused in that way.
I think the big thing for me is that it was to the point where I didn’t feel good about myself. Even though I told other people those things, it really wasn’t something I did. I really had to work hard and talk about the stuff that I do struggle with. It’s not voluntary, and the things I feel are not voluntary. So I didn’t do anything to have this. It’s my responsibility to take care of it. But for me, that was a fundamental thing.
Then the second thing, taking care of it is really saying to yourself: ‘I have to put the resources first into me’. And if I compromise my foundation, which is myself, and the entirety of everything you experience is generated by this part of the brain, so it’s all about that. And if that is not working, okay, it affects everything. Right? And so, anyway, the point is all that stuff, it’s key.
We work on that foundation and you have to set those boundaries and say: ‘No, I’m not gonna hang out after seven. I’m going back to the hotel room and sleeping, or I need to drink more water, or I need to do this’. Really, you have to say: ‘Look, I’m the boss of me’. And it doesn’t matter what you want, if it compromises my health. I don’t care if you think it’s a DevRel health problem or not. Health problems are health problems. They’re all health problems. There is nothing that is physical or mental somehow about it. It’s all interrelated, it’s all just health problems. The thing is that we don’t really know how to treat it well. So we’re trying to learn how to do that.
I guess what we were talking about with employers, one of the things that I’ve run into is that most employers want to do the right things, but they don’t know what to do. They really don’t. And so I would say: ‘I’m going to talk about my own programme’. OSMI specifically exists, and has created handbooks, and can provide direct consulting to tell you how to do this. And we give that stuff away for free. So we’re there and we can help you with that stuff. Right now, on a basic level though, I think what it is saying is: ‘I understand the major impact that I as an employer have on your happiness and wellbeing. So I need to treat it as a number one priority’.
That’s it. End of story. If it’s not a number one priority, then why are you even there? Otherwise? The only reason an organisation exists, a for-profit organisation in the United States, the reason they exist is to make money. That’s the only reason they exist. And legally everything pushes to that. Shareholders can even sue them if they don’t make money, or enough money. So keep that in mind.
You’re making a bargain with an organisation. You’re signing a contract with an organisation that’s purpose is to make money, no matter what they say. That’s where it is. So you kind of have to be that person and say: ‘No, my health matters this much, and I’m not going to compromise it for some job’. It is not that important. It’s just not.
David: I have been doing this at conferences. I actually did this in Prague at DevRelCon, where everybody’s going out after the conference, and I have just said: ‘You know, I’d love to, but I need to go ‘de-people’ for a while, right? I’m ‘peopled out’ for right now and I need to go not do that’. And I even posted in the DevRelCon chat on the DevRel collective that I wasn’t going there. ‘I’m going back to my hotel to ‘de-people’ for a while, and if anybody would like to go have a small dinner, let me know’. But that was all self-care. It was all selfish self-care of, you know, ‘I’ve been around people all day. I need some time to ‘de-people’ and be by myself for a minute. It’s not that I don’t want to be with you, I just need to be with smaller groups of people for a while’.
Rain: But that’s not selfish. You can’t take care of other people if you’re not taking care of yourself first. That’s not selfish at all.
David: It leads to burnout for me if I don’t stop when I need to stop, and I just keep going, and then suddenly I’m over the line, way over the line, and I can’t get back.
Matthew: Well look, thank you everyone for your time. This has been a good discussion. I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface, but it feels like the beginning of a conversation rather than this being the end of it. So, thank you, each of you. We’ll put lots of resources in the notes. I know that everyone here has shared things that we can put in there for people who are watching this or listening to this.
Very briefly, if everyone could just share where people can find out more about you, that would be great. So Ed, OSMIhelp.org, is that where people can go?
Ed: Yeah. OSMIhelp.org. Yeah. And that’s where you can find out about us.
Matthew: Thank you. Rain?
Rain: I tend to be on most socials as Rain Leander.
David: I am almost always David GS. I am Davidgs.com. On Twitter, somebody stole David Gs. And I’m DavidGSIoT. But pretty much David GS will find me almost everywhere.
Matthew: And Wesley?
Wesley: You can find a lot of my stuff at wesleyfaulkner.com. I’m on Mastodon on the hachyderm server as Wesley83. Of course, I’m also on the podcast Community Pulse, and also just work with Kim Scott, so you can find me there.
Matthew: Cool. And Rebecca, thank you so much for taking the time to be a part of this, and thank you to Common Room for sponsoring this episode. Thanks for sharing.
Rebecca: It feels funny that you’re calling me out to thank me. Really thank you to each of you, to our panellists, to this roundtable, this circle, and for bringing us all together, Matthew. This is really special. It’s quite moving, so I don’t really have much else to say other than thank you for the vulnerability, honesty, candour, and humour throughout it as well. So thanks for the education.
Matthew: Thank you everyone. See you again.