How moderating an online community prepared me to be a Developer Advocate

A month ago, I officially began a new role as Developer Advocate at BigCommerce. I wanted to write a post about the path I took to this role, because Developer Advocacy is a relatively new field that attracts people from a lot of different backgrounds. Some developer advocates were software engineers in another life, while others, like me, took a different route.

Before I became a Developer Advocate, I moderated an online Community made up of developers who build on BigCommerce. Here’s how interacting with developers in an online Community shaped the way I think about developer advocacy:

Talk to developers who are actually using your APIs

When you open your product to outside developers, you realize pretty quickly that developers are going to do all kinds of surprising things with it.

In the Community, developers post questions daily outlining their use cases, blockers, and project requirements. The Community is a way to learn about these use cases directly from developers themselves. When we’re able to understand what are developers actually building, we can begin to create tools that address developers’ needs in the best possible way.

Build trust

Online communities are, well, online, but you don’t need to be face-to-face with your Community members to build relationships. On the most basic level, being able to talk through problems community developers are experiencing and being a sounding board for possible solutions will quickly establish you as a resource.

It’s also important to be a facilitator. If a developer comes to me with feedback, a bug report, or a mistake in the documentation, I have a responsibility to follow through and connect them with the team that can help.

Documentation, documentation, documentation

Before I began working with developers, I majored in technical writing, and the experience heavily influenced the way I think about user personas. Technical writers are trained to think of users as a real person who has a job to do. Before you can write instructions for someone, you have to understand who that user is and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It also underscores the fact that for developer tools like an API, the documentation essentially is the interface. It’s the main point of contact that developers have to figure out how it works. In the Community, documentation was one of the recurring themes in developer questions, and the Community was an important feedback channel for making sure documentation was correct and complete.

Get comfortable helping developers in a variety of stacks, languages, and frameworks

For a Saas platform like BigCommerce, there’s no one tool or language that developers use to build extensions. Developers looking for help in the Community might be working on the frontend or the backend, using a variety of languages and libraries. No one can be expected to be an expert in everything, but having a solid grasp on programming basics (and excellent Google skills) goes a long way. Answering questions in the Community prepared me to jump into solving a problem, even if I don’t consider myself a certified expert in the language being used.

Build internal alliances

As a Developer Advocate or Community moderator, you’re entrusted with feedback from developers who count on BigCommerce to be a partner and listen to their business needs. How do you make sure this feedback becomes actionable instead of falling through the cracks? As a Community moderator, I made connections and worked to understand internal processes so I could make sure I was channeling feedback to the most effective source.

Moderating an online community built a foundation for my move into developer advocacy, but I’m looking forward to building a whole new suite of skills to enable my new role. Next, I’ll be pushing my presentation skills, my programming abilities, and my understanding of software engineering on an enterprise scale. I’ll be sharing my progress in future posts.

Did you go into developer advocacy from a non-software engineering background? Or have questions? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter!