Meet-ups can be a tricky beast for developer advocates. Arguably, they are one of the most authentic expressions of developer community. Done wrong, they can do you more damage than good.
Think of LUGs (Linux User Groups). In towns and cities across the world, Linux users gather together once a month in pubs, curry houses, offices, university classrooms and elsewhere to socialise, listen to talks and get help fixing broken wifi drivers. Without a developer advocate or VC-funded sponsor in sight, they come together for the love of the tech and for the community it brings them.
Many of us have had a friend who, for naivety or want of money, found themselves swallowed up in some crazy multi-level marketing scheme. If you’ve had such a friend, you might remember inviting them for dinner and then regretting the decision as they spent the evening promising you a millionaire lifestyle if you’d only pay the £50 to join the scheme and start selling cleaning products door to door.
As a developer advocate, with a technology to share, you should think of attending meet-ups as being a guest in someone’s home. Often, it’s akin to a stranger’s home. So unlike your brush-peddling friend, you won’t have a previously good relationship to fall back on when you sour the atmosphere with your sales pitch.
In whatever professional capacity you attend meet-ups, leave the sales pitches to your suit-wearing colleagues. Whether it’s for one night or long-term, be a valuable participant in that community. You’ll be remembered for the right reasons and your product message will carry more weight when you come to give it.
In that approach we see distilled the way to conduct yourself as a developer advocate: be a decent human being who listens, empathises and shares their technology only when they’ve both earned the credibility to do so and when it would bring value to the people they’re speaking to.
Types of developer meet-up
Each developer meet-up group exists as a point somewhere on a graph with the following axes:
- X: from vendor funded and organised at one end to community-driven groups at the other
- Y: from single technology events through to broader multi-technology groups.
You’ll come across meet-ups that want to charge you for speaking, to those who vehemently refuse sponsorship from speakers. Many meet-ups are organised by companies to help with recruitment. Some are there because a community of people wanted to learn together. Others are effectively part of a software vendor’s field marketing activity.
Your involvement with each meet-up group will vary according to where the group falls on the graph above.
What you’ll do at meet-ups
Throughout your involvement with meet-ups, you’ll find yourself doing at least some of the following:
- running individual meet-ups or entire groups
- speaking at meet-ups
- sponsoring meet-ups
- simply showing up.
Although it might seem obvious if you’re already a frequent meet-up attender, it’s worth considering why you’d become involved professionally in meet-ups.
Meet-ups offer developer advocates opportunities to:
- raise awareness and understanding
- change perceptions
- build community
- try-out conference talks
- put a human face on your project/product
- learn about the competition
- stay current with new technologies.
Working with OPMs
Other people’s meet-ups (OPMs) give you the opportunity to build awareness and educate developers about your project. If you take every speaking opportunity, you’ll quickly hit burn-out. If you sponsor every group, you’ll run out of budget.
As you build your developer advocacy strategy, you’ll begin to divide your efforts according to geography and technology community. Your choice of meet-up groups must be informed by those strategic choices.
For example, let’s say you choose Paris as one your key cities and Java developers as one of your key technology communities. In that case, you’d naturally become involved with the Paris JUG. Perhaps you’d offer to sponsor and you’d certainly seek to speak.
However, if the Icelandic JUG invited you to speak then the decision might be a little harder. Similarly, if a PHP group in Dublin invited you to speak you should probably think hard about both the potential gains and opportunity costs. Dublin’s a great developer city and PHP is going through something of a revival. However, you need to choose your activities strategically in order to make effective use of your limited time and budget.
What to speak about
If product pitches are out, then what are you going to speak about?
Joe Nash, Developer Evangelist at Improbable.io, describes himself as a collector of cool technical stories. He relays those stories, in the context of delivering a broader message, in his conference and meet-up talks.
If you look at any conference or meet-up programme, you’ll see broadly four types of talk:
- war story: we did this, this is how we did it, this is what went wrong, this is what went well
- technique or tool overview: here’s why you should do X, along with some of the ways you can do it
- rallying call: let’s all do Y
- product pitch: wake me up when you’re done.
If you can couch your message in practical, real-world stories and demos then you’ll capture people’s attention and imaginations far more easily than if you flip through the slide deck your marketing team gave you.
For the introverts amongst us, this can be the most tiring part of being a developer advocate. It’s also one of the the most important.
Showing up, giving a talk and then disappearing is a wasted opportunity. By going out of your way to start conversations with people at events you do three things:
- build relationships and humanise yourself: you become less the face of your product and more the friendly person who had something interesting to say
- help people learn more: not everyone wants to ask questions at the end of a talk but they might want to speak to you one on one and learn more about your software
- find users: especially if your product is open source software, there’s every chance you’ll find people who are already using your software but are unknown to you.
If this side of the job is uncomfortable for you, you might find a book such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People useful. However, mostly you just need to push through the pain and get better with practice.
Meet-ups are a staple part of developer relations. How much they focus in your own mix of activities will depend on your own strategy, but they can offer a relatively low cost way to build awareness and community.