On Developer Relations and Personal Integrity (vol. 2)
From the desk of Leslie Hawthorn
You may recall that we’ve been asked how DevRel professionals can maintain their personal integrity whilst lending it to their employers. If this doesn’t sound familiar, take 6 minutes to read our first advice column. In today’s post, I’m dishing up some sound advice from my own experience and my former colleague, Mano Marks, who spent 9 years as a Developer Advocate at Google before moving on to head up DevRel at Docker.
This column was a bit delayed both due to holidays¹ and the nuance of the subject matter². As a Developer Relations person, you have two distinct sets of stakeholders: the company you work for, and the community you’re cultivating. Failing to meet the needs of your community does damage to the business, but you also have to argue for serving the community in ways that map to business value. Doing so nimbly is challenging, or, to quote Matthew Revell³, if you’re doing your job right both sets of stakeholders will probably feel like you’re not doing enough for them.
Mano Mark’s gave an excellent talk tackling this topic at the recent DevXCon Conference. Starting from the premise the Developer Relations folks have to decide who they work for — their developer community or their company — and in what mix depending on particular situations, Mano shared some excellent advice for maintaining personal integrity in a profession that’s fundamentally reputation driven.
Find 20 minutes to watch the whole talk; it’s the best primer I’ve ever seen on the topic, plus there’s a ton to learn from unpacking the experience of balancing company and community needs when at a very large company. If you’re time strapped now, here are some highlights.
Understand Company Motivations
Regardless of their level of dedication to positive community and developer experiences, companies make decisions based on business needs. As a Developer Advocate, you’re inevitably going to find yourself in the position of having to defend — or at least explain — your organization’s unpopular choices to your developer community. That task is never easy, as Mano explained when recounting Google’s choice to sunset Google Reader.
While you don’t have to agree with a decision that your company makes, as a Developer Relations professional you do need to explain the rationale to your community. Make sure that you understand exactly why the decision was made, including specific business drivers. It’s terrific if you can discover — and share widely — what discussions were had about the impact to the community of a particular decision.
If you’re sharing information with your whole community — or even one person — about something that leaves them dissatisfied, remember to be honest. Maintaining one’s credibility is essential to success in Developer Relations, both for personal satisfaction and the sake of landing future employment; if you’re credibility is trashed, you have no integrity to lend to your next company. Listen with kindness and compassion to the folks who are unhappy, and tell them the truth about why the decision was made in the first place.
And let’s be clear, honesty is not the same thing as trashing your employer. If you disagree with a decision, you should share the business rationale for it in a polite and professional way. (My personal favorite is “It’s not the decision I would have made, either, but here’s what we can do instead….”) While both you and members of your community may remain unhappy about the outcome, at least there’s a common understanding of why it happened. Much of the time, people just want to be heard when they are frustrated — or thrilled — and a great Developer Advocate does that every day, anyway.
You can sometimes soften the blow for your community by providing them with alternatives, and if that’s the case come to discussions with developers well informed about these alternatives. Bonus points if you have needed to choose one yourself — talk honestly and openly about your experience experimenting with the new options. Take time to learn from your community what alternatives they’ve found, and the pros and cons of each. Being actively and honestly engaged while your community forges a new path forward solidifies your reputation with them, and makes it easier to have difficult conversations in the future.
Know when to walk away⁴
So what happens when you’ve done your best to dissuade your employer from making a decision that harms your community, but the decision goes forward anyway?
Know you’re not alone. I’ve been doing community engagement work for over a decade now, and most of my co-practitioners have horror stories to share about that moment they knew they had to look for another job, and fast. There are resources to help you with that process, which I’ll get to in a moment.
But first, take a deep breath and assess the situation a bit further. Are you being sensitive about the decision and the community’s potential reaction to it because you were personally against it? Are there some other DevRel folks you can talk to for advice, either on feeling better about the decision — maybe its not that bad — or how to have the conversation with your community in an honest and professional fashion? Is there any other opportunity to present a case to management showing how their decision may negatively impact the business? Can you do some sort of A/B testing to demonstrate that the change will not be well received? Are you in a position to collect feedback from the community and advocate internally that the decision be reversed?
If you’ve been doing DevRel for awhile, you’ve probably thought through all of those options. If there’s nothing you can do to reverse course, take the opportunity to assess what you could have done differently when exercising your influence internally. Talk to your fellow DevRel professionals to see what they would have done in the same situation, and learn from their answers. At the very least, if every one of your friends gets the same look of “OMGWTFBBQ!!?!??!” on their face as you did, you’ll know that walking away is a completely reasonable course of action.
When you’re in a situation that challenges your personal integrity, don’t think you have to go it alone. Talking amongst yourself in a DevRel team can help, but make sure you don’t descend into everything becoming a steaming pile of negativity. (And, if you’re managing the team, you may simply not feel comfortable having that discussion with your reports. That’s highly situation dependent.)
Fortunately, there’s a ton of places to get help with these sorts of situations.
The Evangelist Collective Slack channel, We Are Developer Evangelists — and So Can You! (WADE for short), is filled with kind and knowledgable humans who can give you sage advice, listen with compassion, and/or tell you when to take the money and run⁵. You can find instructions for joining on the Evangelist Collective site.
Things to Read
Well, you can always ask us! Plus, subscribe to Hoopy’s excellent DevRel Newsletter, as well as Mary’s fantastic DevRel Weekly. You can also find helpful articles and videos at DevRel.net. There are a number of excellent resources on how to do DevRel well, how to navigate challenging circumstances, and a ton of opportunities to connect with your fellow practitioners online and learn from their FaceBlogTweetSnapInstas.
Network with Your Colleagues
If you’re fortunate enough to have a DevRel meetup in your area, sign up to attend the next meeting. But as a DevReler, you’ve probably already started one near you, so your next best option is to head to a conference. You can meet fellow practitioners at DevRelCon, with the next instances coming up in Tokyo on July 15th and London on November 8th. (I’ve already got my ticket for London, so take that as a ringing endorsement based on my experience there last year!)
And for our next installment
We’ve got another post coming later this week from Laura, on the ever popular topic of working successfully from home, or even just in a distributed team.
We always love to hear from you, so let us know what other topics you’d like to see us cover here in the comments or on Twitter.
 Ed. note — Laura: We should really do a post on #DevRelLife and self-care one of these days, too. Adding to our backlog!
 Okay, so it was mostly holidays and day job, I’ll be honest.
 Ed. note — Laura: You may recall Matthew was the splendid chap who posed this advice column question in the first place.
 Ok, so this section is inspired more by a childhood friend’s family’s obsession with Kenny Rogers than by Mano’s talk, but that’s OK. This lesson is a good one to learn early.
 Because you just can’t have enough late ‘70’s song references in one post.