This talk from Roblox’s Grace Francisco covers the challenges and rewards of running a global developer relations team. It was recorded at DevXcon San Francisco 2017.
Thank you, good morning. So, I am Grace Francisco. I’m actually from San Francisco, I like to think of it as my town.
So just a little history about me. I’ve actually been doing this for an incredible 12 plus years now, it’s been a long ride. I was very lucky, I started my career in DevRel at the world renowned Microsoft DPE; it was called DPE back then, developer tools and platforms and evangelism. It has since be renamed DX for developer experience.
I spent eight years there across different organizations. My last stint at Microsoft, my last two and a half years, I was working with open source communities. So imagine me going to an open source community for the first time, as the very first Microsoft representative. The reaction was often in those first few years, “You’re with Microsoft. What the F are you doing here?” Okay? So you get kind of used to that, and you find a way to bridge the conversation really quickly and build those relationships. And I have to say, the end of that time that I was working with open source communities, we actually were getting some traction, and they’re continuing to do that, so I’m really proud of that work. You haven’t lived in evangelism until you’ve done that kind of work. Since then, I’ve been for the last three years, working at Atlassian, building a new global developer-relations organization.
Most of my talk today is about that. Even in the early days, as I was building up this team, we were actually spread the east coast, west coast, London, and Amsterdam. By the end, we were spread across also Austin, and Sydney, home office in New Jersey, home office in Belgium. We were spread across the entire globe.
But, full disclosure, I am now just recently moved over to a company called Roblox, and at Roblox we like to call our platform the imagination platform. And I love this gig because I’m actually working with developers who are creating new experiences, and these developers, the average age is from 13 to 22, so talking about completely new developer segment. This is an amazing opportunity to work with those emerging developers that are coming in. And also, full disclosure, this is my new team, we are gloriously all local, which has been a really nice shift in what I’ve been doing.
But I came here to talk about global teams. What it’s like to lead and work within a global organization. And there are some upsides, right? I mean, you get to travel the world. How glorious can that be? I mean it is really amazing, seriously. All right?
Then you’ve got the cultural learnings, the global perspective, you know it’s a great selling point. It’s awesome.
Now this is a picture of a gigantic oak tree that recently fell in my yard. And that’s broken fencing there. Massive, massive tree that fell over. As many of you know, we’ve had a huge of rain this past spring. That time of rain after years, and years, and years of drought, and you know the poor tree was you know wanting some water. Good thing, right? But too much of a good thing can be not so great. Especially when it breaks your fence. So similarly, with global evangelism, that travel as glorious as it can be, may not be so glorious when it’s too frequent, when it’s unexpected, when it’s arduous and you’re sitting in coach for 15 hours to get to Sydney. It can be difficult, right? And if you are working in a global organization, you do have those long hours where you’re meeting with people really early in the morning. Your time zone, late afternoon, late evening for the Sydney folks, so you have really long days. But it doesn’t diminish the fact that you do get those cultural learnings and that global perspective, it’s a great experience. Those are things you need to think about in terms of what is not so glorious about being in a global team.
Now I know some of you were at DevRelCon last year, yeah? Hands, anyone? All right, so you may remember that at that conference, I got to this slide, and I was really trying hard to channel Oprah Winfrey. I’m going to save you that horror today, okay? My point is there are a bunch of companies now that want to publish APIs, right? You guys know. Even banks are publishing APIs. My god, that’s kind of scary. But they’re also realizing, that to be successful in driving the adoption of these APIs, they must also have relations. My god, that’s great. It’s creating demand for people like you and me. That’s wonderful. However, as one recruiter put it to me, he painstakingly came to me, and he came to me with just a stressful look on his face, and he said, “I’m trying to help you, but you’re looking for, not just a unicorn. You’re wanting me to look for a unicorn, but you want me to find a unicorn that poops rainbows, okay? This is mission impossible. And it gets worse. You want me to help you build a team of these unicorns.” All right?
It makes building these complex sands structures seem like a simple thing. This looks like really simple, right? So we all know evangelists don’t grow on trees, right? We don’t come from trees. So where do you find them? I get this question all the time. Where do you find these evangelists? So I hope that you’re not doing a Google search for evangelists or developer advocates, or developer relations because the fact is not many of us actually hold this professional title. So where do you look? Now for me, what I did was, if you’re an established company that’s been around for awhile, there are probably some people in that company that are ready for a career change. So evangelize those opportunities internally first and foremost. Don’t poach. Evangelize the opportunity, have those casual informational, you know advertise it. And you’re gonna get some of the greatest people there that can be your next future evangelist.
What about outside? Where do you look? You can’t find evangelists, like there are a few, but they don’t want to talk to you. Who do you look for? Some of the best evangelists that I have hired came from a pre-sales engineering background. You know those salespeople that go out for these technical products? Similarly, you’re gonna want to look at those post-sales consulting engineers that do the implementations. So you’re looking for folks that have shared skill sets. They go out and present, they have domain expertise, they’re technical, and they know what they’re talking about. Oh, and don’t forget conferences like this, developer conferences, DevRel conferences, great opportunity to recruit.
Now, so you found your potential evangelist. You’re happy as can be, the recruiter’s happy, my god he got one for you. All right, that potential evangelist. Now earlier this year, I spent some time actually creating, not just any kind of hand-crafted ramen noodle at home, this was gluten-free ramen noodle. Let me tell you, it is a pain in the ass to make. It takes hours. Hours and hours of mixing, kneading, getting it into the right shape and form, just squeeze it through that contraption, painstaking. But the results of that can be spectacular, even though you have to eat it all at once. You can’t save this stuff. Similarly, when it comes to creating evangelists, and you should take it on as a personal responsibility, you and I all have to look at creating those next set of evangelists. There aren’t enough of us, right? So as you’re taking on that responsibility, it does take time. It’s a lot of coaching. It’s a lot of nurturing to get that person down the right track for this fairly new discipline. But the results can be absolutely spectacular, and really personally rewarding. So I encourage you to do that.
But you don’t have to take it all on your own shoulders, right? Because you have a village available to you at Atlassian. At Atlassian we’ve took the value “Play as a Team” very, very seriously. And what that resulted in was, we had teams, we had product offering us was content, we had engineering offering us content as well as technical mentoring. Whenever a new API or pair came out, they were there for us to help us get up to speed. And it wasn’t just that, it was whenever we were ready for that next technical article, whenever we had that next presentation, we had a whole set of people across product, across marketing, across engineering, that were willing to sit there with us and watch those presentations, review those blog posts, and give us feedback. It takes a village. Every day, they made us better evangelists. So just like with children, a village makes you better. And as you’re building this global organization, right? You have to start thinking about what are those special roles that I need on my team, such as that person who is actively looking and carrying and feeding your community, right? That’s an active thing that has to be done. It can’t be just a part-time thing. So you’ve got someone who’s your community wrangler. And then you’ve got folks probably on your team also that you want to look at as they love being on the road, they love doing those thought leadership talks. They are your outbound speakers. And then, at some part of your team you may have some folks that are what I call partner evangelists, right? Their whole goal in charters around making sure those strategic partners you’re working with are successful in using those APIs that you’re producing, right? And then towards the end of my time at Atlassian, we actually started hiring in Manila some Dev support staff, folks who were listening to all of the questions and issues on our developer forum around usage of our product APIs. So those were folks that were actually inbound focused, just listening for those questions.
So and you’ve built this global team, right? And you’ve suddenly realized you are across all these incompatible time zones. What in the hell do you do to keep in sync? Well for us at Atlassian, I’ll tell you exactly what we did, which was, we had a tool, we call it HipChat. So HipChat actually has an integration in it that you can use in your team room, and that integration was stand ups. It’s a simple thing, right? And you guys are mostly familiar with stand ups, hopefully, and we didn’t do it at the same time every day so obviously some people would be asleep. So whenever your day started, you posted your stand up, and that stand up macro allowed you to quickly call for summary during the day, you know what were people doing, which was great for me as a leader, but you know what was even better, is that the teammates would run that report to look at what people were doing during the day. Because it was virtually our hallway conversation, even though we weren’t in the same place, it acted as our hallway conversation, to look at, what other people were doing on a team? How we could help other people? What else could we do? Who was stuck? What can we do to help push that forward? So use that as your hallway conversation, no matter what time zone you’re in.
Second is, video. I cannot advocate for video enough. And I’ll be honest, when I started at Atlassian, so Atlassian has things set up where videos enabled everywhere. That on your laptop, every meeting room was set up for video, video is on by default. It’s the first company I went to where it was like this. So you know, in the beginning it was kind of weird, like you know sometimes I had to work from my home office, and I actually had to get out of my pajamas and actually wear real clothes to get on a call. It can be uncomfortable, but when you’re working with a global team, it is so essential and important to have that video time. Now, bandwidth may not cooperate with you on a lot of cases, especially when you’re going from the U.S. to Australia. However, you always, the intent is always to do that face-time, whether it’s BlueJeans, or HipChat, or whatever technology you’re using, and then back into audio, because there’s so much non-verbal communication that happens that you need to really understand if someone is overloaded, or someone is stressed out, or someone is really happy, you want to see them and be able to understand how to adjust in your team.
And then lastly with these incompatible time zones, what do you do about all up team syncs? Someone is gonna suffer if you do just one, right? So what I did was, I would do two in one day. One that was optimized for the folks that were in Europe, as well as in the east coast, and the second one later in the day was about the folks in Sydney, as well as the west coast. And the truth is, what happened organically was the folks that could make it to both, when time allowed, often did. And that was fantastic. And I encouraged it, because they acted as sort of that continuity, and that glue, and that team, so it wasn’t just me bouncing between these two meetings. You know giving that team synergy was such an important thing for all of us.
So I’m going to switch gears here. We talked about building your team a little bit, and now I’m going to talk about budgeting. In every company has a different process around this. There are two distinct forms that I look at here. One is what I call budgeting backwards, where you are giving this, the innumerous number for the year. You’re told go plan it out quarter by quarter, by initiative, you figure out how you’re going to use that money. So that’s one aspect. The other is you can land in a company you’re told, “You don’t have a number,” okay? That freaks some people out. You have no number. You’ve got to go in tin cup every single time you have a need to spend on something. And what I would have to say to you guys is, don’t worry about it, one way or another because the reality is you get that big number you work backwards from, you’re still gonna have to justify and rationalize every spend that you make, no matter what. And if you go forward and you tin cup, same thing. So the processes are very similar, it’s just a matter of whether you’re budgeting backwards or budgeting forwards.
And then with respect to events, that’s one of the first things that comes to mind around what you’re going to spend money on? But in a global organization, the first thing you should be thinking about with respect to events to is, who am I going to partner with? Who am I going to share this funding with, right? Because there’s probably part of marketing org, a field marketing org, a corporate marketing org, that has an interest in going to that same event, so share the load because events are super expensive. It’s not just that they’re super expensive they’re a ton of heavy-lifting, right? And execution. There’s a ton of planning that goes on, there so share the love, and share the pain around events with other teams. And specifically too when you think about those third-party events, there’s probably a developer event somewhere in the world every single day of the year at this point, right? So pick your events carefully. And to Donny’s point, segment, segment, segment to figure out which segment or developer audience really matters to you and go to those events, right?
And then swag. Swag is a fundamental, whether you’re paying for it or another group is paying for it, make sure that you are weighing in around the swag that resonates with your audience. Because the last thing you want to do is go to a conference and giving out swag that ends up right in the conference trash, right? So make sure it resonates, it’s something that people feel comfortable and really happy to use.
And then lastly around, well not lastly, almost lastly around budget travel. And I point this out for the simple fact that if you’re in a global organization, DevRel is easily the highest travel budget across the entire organization which means, what? It means that you are under heavy, heavy scrutiny by the CFO, or people in finance, as well as other senior leaders, right? It’s a lot of money. So what I would tell you is make sure that you are teaching everyone on your team about budgeting around travel. What it costs to go on an international, what it costs to go on a domestic trip. Fiscal responsibility is something that you really want to have in your team and have them understand that you know bouncing around over the world may be fun, but it’s a company investment. So help them understand and budget for that.
And then off-sites, if you are truly a globally dispersed team and you are not in the same location, I cannot advocate enough for this. It’s worth every penny if you plan for it correctly. So we did this quarterly at Atlassian because literally, we were not in the same office, any of us. And it’s worth it, because these are high value resources, right, so as much as you can help them collaborate and network and work together, it benefits them, it benefits the company, it’s all good stuff. It’s also the best opportunity for you really to get in that room and reassess what are the initiatives we have in playing right now? How can we do this better? What do we need to change to make this a better operational team?
Okay and the shifting gears just one more time. So you’ve hired your team, right? You’ve figured out how to deal with the budget aspect, but there’s still so much work to do. How do you scale? What you’re doing? We all know, most of us know content is king, right? Most of us spend a ton of time investing and creating great technical content for our audiences. But the key here is making sure, and Donny had this point as well which is, go where they are. You’ve got to make sure you’re shepherding your content to those social channels, where your audience is really listening. Don’t expect them to come to your web assets. Publish it there, but make sure you’re also shepherding it across to Hacker News, Reddit, whatever other developer social channel really matters to your particular audience.
And then, lastly, champion your champions. Build the program around them, right? Champions externally have a level of credibility that no evangelist on your direct team does, because they are external, they are not being paid by you, they love your product, they’re your craziest most enthusiastic fans. Build a program around them. Give them whatever they need to help, to help them help you, right? So give them tutorials, give them exclusive insights, give them pizza money, swag, whatever it takes to help them build out their network effect, and be that enthusiastic fan for you, right? And in some cases, not only are they are your best champions and fans externally, they can end up being some of your best employees. So when appropriate, hire a champion when you have those openings.
So has a lot to cover in a very short time. Just to wrap up, remember you’re not just hiring any kind of unicorn. You are hiring a unicorn that poops rainbows, for real, right? You also are taking on a commitment to help generate those next set of evangelists, but not on your own, right? Do that with your village. Second budgeting, don’t freak out. Budgeting forward, budgeting backwards. Use your evangelism skills to get what you need, right? So apply it with your CFO, apply it with those senior leaders that you’re asking for that money for. And then last but not least scaling your reach, it’s all about making sure that not only do build up quality content, but that you make sure you’re shepherding it across to the target audiences that you want to target, and then champions. Champion your champions able too much for you, and then last but not least, I’m so happy to be here. Developer relations in my time in my twelve years that I’ve been doing this, has shifted a ton, and that is part of the reason why I’m still doing this kind of work. Every day is a new day. You learn something new. Push yourself to do something new, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and it will reward you, so thank you. I appreciate it.
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