Developer Relations in The Time of Covid-19

By this time each year, my fellow developer advocates and evangelists are usually knee-deep in planning for the coming onslaught of fall tech conferences. In the same way Black Friday often brings the retail sector back to profitability, conference season is when we typically see our air and hotel miles really rack up. Covid-19 and the lockdowns it caused have changed everything.

I’ve checked in with a few of my developer relations peers recently – they’re struggling. If we can’t get out and actually work directly with developers at hackathons, technical events, meetups, and our other favorite face-to-face activities, how can we adequately do our jobs? Devrel, after all, is about engaging developers, building communities, and meeting our peers where they are to bring them personalized value when we can.

It’s unlikely we’ll go back to “normal” any time soon – we’ll feel the reverberations of these travel bans and the specter of infection resurgence for months, possibly years. How can your developer relations program possibly survive this?

The lack of travel is, quite honestly, the least of our concerns. The obvious answer there is to shift more of our efforts online – make sure our documentation, sample code and supporting content is tight, accurate, and appropriately targeted to the right audiences; spend more time engaging in online forums, chats, and other existing interactive formats; consider starting a YouTube channel or podcast to share both evergreen and up to the minute information. The greater challenge is reacting appropriately to what’s actually happening to the industry itself.

The Tech Industry was Cracking; The Pandemic Only Wedged Those Cracks Wider

This year didn’t kick off with a bang for tech. The collapse of WeWork and the Softbank Vision Fund sent ripples throughout the VC community. Many began asking questions about the stability and sustainability of many popular tech companies, especially those that had yet to find a solid path to profitability. Much of the murmuring echoed the same things I heard during the last couple of tech bubble bursts, and it looked like a reckoning was on its way. No one expected that reckoning to come in the form of a global pandemic.

The number of tech companies that have either laid off massive rounds of staff or gone out of business completely has skyrocketed in the last few weeks, leaving thousands of developers competing for work. Many of these developers have already begun focusing on their own side projects, hoping to generate revenue or build a new business while they keep an eye open for employment.

It’s scary watching our friends go through this. It’s even more frightening when you’re doing it yourself (as I have since January). If you’ve always treated developer relations as a marketing function, now is the time to transform it into a program focused on advocacy. Developers of all stripes – whether independent or still employed – need to quickly develop new skills and adopt new tools to help them and the people they work for weather this storm. It’s time to re-examine the messaging you’re sending to your developer community and ensure you’re focusing less on selling right now and more on solving their problems. This is always the right tactic when messaging to developers – never sell, always solve – but the current environment all but requires you to be laser focused on providing targeted, well-defined solutions if you want to stay heard above the noise.

Developer Advocates Must Become Trusted Advisors

As companies review their ongoing digital projects, many will either either be scaled back in scope or eliminated completely. New digital projects are already being proposed and planned to react to the new reality: Restaurants are adjusting to a take-out and delivery-only business model, retailers are scrambling to get their entire businesses online, and auto dealerships are adapting to contactless car delivery. It’s no longer a question of business optimization, but one of survival. If possible, position your tools and digital solutions as quick, easy, and inexpensive ways to rapidly add needed functionality without requiring a full development team. If you can’t honestly say that (or if the community disagrees), spend this time reviewing your entire developer experience – from marketing and outreach, to onboarding, to documentation, to launch and support – and optimize every flow to help your developer customers find the information they need as quickly and easily as possible.

Developer advocates are perfectly positioned to become trusted advisors for your customers during this time. Consider shifting their role to one more akin to a consultant. Rather than focus on conferences – even the ones being held online – now is the time to identify the cohorts of developers who can make the best use of your technology and could use a more personalized approach. Rather than give a couple of stage talks, create a series of videos that address some of the most common and pressing issues you hear from your developer community. If you don’t yet have a mechanism to gauge the needs of the community, then drop everything and build that first.

Webinars can be helpful, but a majority of the time is spent listening to the speaker, often with little time left for questions. Instead, post videos that contain the “lecture” part of your webinar, promote them heavily, then schedule a follow up event dedicated entirely to answering community questions. Developer advocates should also hold and prominently promote regular office hours and make themselves personally available during the work day to engage directly with members of their community.

This is also a great time for developer advocates to partner with their corporate learning and development teams to collaborate on creating online courses and certification-style programs to better engage and educate their customers. Corporate L&D teams already leverage a lot of great tools that make this easier for internal training. Maximize their value by opening similar opportunities to your customers.

Develop a Strategy for Online Hackathons

Though they have waned in popularity in recent years, few tech-focused events are as exciting as the venerable hackathon. Typically presented as a three-day, 24/7 marathon of programming, hacking, and general camaraderie and competition, these events are tremendously valuable for promoting tools and products to developers while gaining critical real-time feedback on ways to improve those products. I fear it may be some time before I get a chance to attend another of these in person.

Online hackathons struggle to capture the same excitement and engaged commitment of a dedicated onsite event, but I believe the pandemic may shift things in our favor. In the last few weeks, it’s likely that you have participated in a non-work related social gathering through Zoom, Google Hangouts or some other video conferencing software to meet up with friends. Though developers have always been pretty comfortable collaborating online, it’s rapidly become our only channel for social interaction, so everyone’s grown more accustomed to it. In order to capture the same excitement, the modern online hackathon should try to mirror the format of one held onsite, leveraging common existing tools to keep engagement high.

Pitch night could be broadcast on a live streaming platform such as Twitch and consist either of prepared videos or live streamed talks through a common video platform. Voting can easily be automated using any variety of tools, even just Google Sheets. Once teams are identified and formed, they should sign up and each receive their own Slack channel, Github repo, and access to any sponsor-provided goodies and tools though a secure and automated format. Borrowing a page from the explosion of e-sports, the entire event can be live streamed with a series of hosts so all participants can check in on the other teams’ progress and still feel part of an ongoing event. Each team should designate a spokesperson who will interact with the hosts and advocates and provide regular updates. A scoreboard showing Github commits and color commentary discussing the technologies being used and the ideas in play can help create drama and fun. Finally, the demos, judging and prize awards can all be handled through one big online party. At the end, the entire thing could be packaged into an episode that can live online in perpetuity.

A global pandemic changes the game for everyone. Now is not the time to worry about how we’ll survive, but to take action and transform the way we work in order to weather the current situation and be ready to thrive and excel once it’s passed. Your developer relations team, far from being superfluous, needs to be at the center of this to help your developer customers succeed in their time of need. Give your developer relations team the support it needs, watch your metrics, and find a lasting win for your organization and your customers.

Key Tasks and Takeaways:

  • Your developer community is suffering right now. Switch from “Developer Evangelism” to “Developer Advocacy” – from “selling” to “solving” – to maximize your impact and provide real assistance.
  • Review your entire developer experience to ensure your documentation, sample code, and other content is accurate, up to date, and easily accessible for your targeted developer audiences.
  • Create a feedback mechanism to consistently monitor and react to the needs of your developer community if one doesn’t already exist.
  • Developer advocates need to shift into consulting mode and work directly with the cohort of customers actively using your tools and services to address their issues. Hold regular office hours and be more engaged in online forums and other channels.
  • In lieu of conferences, create static videos and other types of content. Follow up with online “webinars” devoted to answering and addressing the questions that arise from that content.
  • Work with corporate Learning and Development teams to create online curricula targeted for your developer community.
  • A hackathon is still a great way to build excitement about your products, engage your developer community, build good PR, and get real time, actionable feedback on how developers actually use your products. To maintain the same level of excitement, shift your logistics planning to become online-only and focus on keeping the event exciting and engaging for all participants, sponsors, and audience members.