Dealing with the Developer Relations lifestyle

Developer Relations can bring amazing opportunities and I’m thankful to be in such a role myself. In fact, if you’re not careful, telling people about your job can easily sound like showing off!

“So you’re a developer advocate? What does that involve?”
“Oh you know… travelling around the world, going to cool events, making fun demos… The usual!”

However, it ain’t all champagne and skittles! I’ve heard anecdotally that a lot of developer advocates quickly get burnt out and they tend to move on within a couple of years. So in this post I’ll share 3 things that can be tough about the lifestyle and some tips for how to overcome them. Admittedly, some of these suggestions can be a bit “do as I say, not as I do” for me occasionally ;-) But I hope they could help some people, especially if they’re new to Developer Relations.

Hello again, airport (photo by Ales Kladnik)

1. Weekends? What are those?!

As a developer advocate, you’re probably going to be spending a lot of evenings and weekends away from home. Even if you try to avoid all the evening events and weekend conferences, you’ll inevitably spend some of your time travelling, outside of the 9 to 5.

Events can take a lot of energy. You’ll probably have been up late the previous few nights working on your talk. Then probably an early start to get to the conference and most likely jet lag too. Then even once you’ve given your talk, there’s all the networking, the bumping into friends, the conference parties and trying to squeeze in a few minutes of sightseeing before the plane home!

String a few of these events together — as often happens during the spring and autumn event peaks, especially — and its easy to see why burnout claims so many developer advocate victims! So how do you make sure you won’t be one of them?

First, plan ahead and don’t overdo it on the CFPs! Try to spread them out a little, especially the international ones. If you’re waiting to hear back from an event, make sure you’ve marked it in your calendar, in case it still comes through.

Be prepared to say no! If you get an offer to speak and you’re thinking “I could just about squeeze this one in!” — then say no! You’ll always be busier than you think. Things will always crop up at the last minute. You need to reserve time to be able to catch up with other things. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a few days between each trip, if at all possible.

Finally, hopefully you work in an environment where you can be flexible with your working hours. Developer Relations isn’t a 9 to 5 job. When you’re just back from a conference, the last thing you need is to feel pressure to be in the office by 9am the following day. Being able to arrive later and being able to work from home some days can really help.

2. Downtime? What’s that?!

Even when you’re not travelling, as a public representative, to an extent you’re always “on call”. You probably get frequent messages from people asking questions, requesting features and reporting bugs. Over time, this can be draining. So what can you do about it?

First, make sure that these responsibilities are shared amongst the team. Try to use your team accounts (for example on Twitter) to gather information and respond to people, so that others can pick up the conversation if you’re away, or too busy. Also, seeing this will encourage other people to message your team accounts in the future, rather than your personal accounts.

Make sure that you take enough time away from your computer and smartphone. Find other activities that leave you feeling relaxed and re-energised, like reading a good book or taking a hot bath (or both together!). If you need to, set a regular alarm to remind you to switch off for a while. If you still struggle to do this, here are some habit-forming tips I wrote a while back.

3. Not enough people liked my tweet!

If you’re already a bit of a social media addict, Developer Relations can be dangerous! Its focus on reach and engagement can make you feel even more pressured and craving of those precious likes!

Sometimes it can feel a bit like a popularity contest. If you’re not careful to foster a good culture and team harmony, it could even get competitive amongst teammates. Who gets invited to speak at the best events, who shares the most popular content, etc.

Unless you really want to encourage a competitive, sales-like culture (are you sure?), make sure that any metrics that you share amongst your colleagues are aggregated across your whole team. Metrics for individuals should be for those individuals only — to help them track and improve their performance, not to compare them to others.

Even with a good team culture, it’s easy to fall into the trap of social media-driven happiness — and get too caught up in short-term metrics. The best way to counteract this is to remember that Developer Relations is not about you. It’s about developers! So forget your follower count and focus on how you can help people (in a sustainable, conscious-of-your-own-health way!).

In summary

  • Remember not to overdo the events and get enough rest in between.
  • Ensure that you get regular downtime and that your colleagues can cover you when you need time out.
  • Don’t treat it as a competition, focus less on your likes and focus more on helping developers.

What have I missed? What helps you? If you have some tips to share, please leave a comment!

Update, Jan 2018

I’ve been thinking about this topic further since writing this post and I think I’ve missed some important points. I know other developer advocates who travel and speak a lot. Yet they don’t seem to be getting burnt out? Focusing on our schedules doesn’t tell the whole story; it seems that it’s just as much to do with our motivations and mindset.

With that in mind, here are some additional tips:

  • In this role we usually have a lot of freedom and the ability to set our own agenda. So it’s important to keep setting goals for ourselves — ones that are realistic, yet push ourselves in a positive way.
  • Sometimes it could be hard with the variety of our schedules to maintain healthy and productive routines. Here is some advice I wrote earlier about forming good habits.
  • We should ensure that we have quieter periods and travelling breaks every now and then, to reflect, re-plan and re-energise.
  • It could be good sometimes to take a solid couple of weeks or more out, to focus on a more in-depth coding project. (Summer and winter might be good times to do this, with the usual conference peaks being spring and autumn).
  • Hopefully we can be mostly in control of our own calendars. If we’re travelling because it’s an event that we chose ourselves, it’s probably going to be easier to motivate ourself, than for one that’s been mandated that we attend.
  • It’s of course easier to give the same talk multiple times, or riff on a theme or two, than try to come up with a new topic to speak about every time. For brand new presentations, we need to be accepting of the time commitment and schedule our events accordingly. Then again, it can feel good to keep things fresh, so we need to find the best balance for ourselves.
  • Different people enjoy travelling different amounts. It’s OK and natural that in our team we might have some people who speak more often and some people who concentrate more on other things. This can be healthy for a team to get the right balance.
  • It’s possible, especially if we’re feeling run-down, to get into a spiral of negative thinking. If one or two events don’t go so well, or we get a string of rejected CFPs, we should put it to the back of our minds as quickly as we can and know that we can and will do better in the future.
  • We should remember to stay positive about ourselves and resist comparing ourselves to others all the time; remember that we can’t be as good as everyone at everything!
  • We can feel free to pat ourselves on the back sometimes! Keeping a record of our achievements — including the ways we have helped people — can be a good way to remind ourselves that we’ve been doing okay!
  • Finally, a new year can naturally bring new ideas and fresh motivation. Happy New Year everyone!

Another update: Since writing this, my colleague Jo wrote a great post on perfectionism and the tech industry, that I think fits in really well with a lot of the points I’ve been thinking about here. I suspect there is a strong correlation between perfectionism and burning out. If you’ve ever felt down about your work or worried that you’re not up to the standard of other developer advocates, you should definitely go and read it!