What background do you need to work in developer relations?
Look at the CV of many dev rel professionals and you’ll often find at least one coding job. But do you really need to have worked as a software developer to become a developer advocate or community manager?
The answer depends on two things:
Developer relations has a naming problem. We’ve moved from Technical Evangelist, to Developer Evangelist and now Developer Advocate. Perhaps we’re trying to make one job title do too much work.
The skills that developer advocates tend to have include:
But, of course, not every developer advocate has the same mix of skills. And not every developer advocate role requires the same mix.
The requirements of a developer advocate role vary depending on a whole bunch of things:
Perhaps it’s obvious but both company and individual will be more successful if the developer advocate’s abilities match the company’s needs.
For example, if you’re a team of one at a start-up that makes a code refactoring tool then you need different skills compared to if you’re on a team of twenty at a Fortune 500 telecoms company. Although both might have the job title “developer advocate”, they’re quite different roles.
So, do you need to have worked as a professional software engineer to work in dev rel? The short answer is “no”.
However, in reality it’s more complex. Let’s go back to the example of the code refactoring tool. If you were an experienced developer, you’d be more able to empathise with the problems faced by your target developers. If you’d never written code then you’d be less effective when it came to in-person advocacy. You could certainly bring other skills to it but you might not be as effective for that particular tool and company.
So, it comes back to matching your skills with what the company needs. If you’re in a team of many, or working on a product that solves a less code-specific problem, then an ability to code might be far less important. Perhaps you can write compelling blog posts or intuitive getting-started guides. Maybe you’re a strategist and can help solve the persistent ROI problem.
But if you have never written code –– even as a hobby or out of curiosity –– then you’ll have an empathy deficit and, maybe, a credibility problem. Unless we come up with more variations on the name “developer advocate”, then it’ll depend on the specific role as to how well you need to be able to code.
It’s less a question of whether you need to have a background a software engineer and more: do you know how it feels to walk in the shoes of your audience?
Developer relations should be open to anyone who can build and serve developer audiences. You do not necessarily need a background as a professional software developer. And if you find yourself as a developer advocate with no previous experience of coding, it’s never too late to learn.
How much do we think about the experience developers go through when learning new tech? How can we serve them better?
Naomi Pentrel from MongoDB talks through a framework for defining dev rel strategy for your team in this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019.
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