DevRel is the new marketing (but can’t feel like marketing)

Bogomil Balkansky
Sequoia Capital Publication
4 min readNov 12, 2020

Open source and shift left are two trends that are making developers the true decision makers for adopting infrastructure software products.

This new reality has profound implications for the go-to-market strategy of any infrastructure software company. Why? Because the last thing developers want to do is talk to salespeople. The classic RFP process has been replaced by developers finding their own answers on developer forums. Vendor-controlled POCs have been replaced by self-service trials.

In this new context, developer relations and community building is the new marketing and sales. At Sequoia we recently gathered leaders of developer relations functions from some leading companies — like Confluent, MongoDB and Twilio — and some emerging ones — like Fishtown Analytics (who we recently partnered with, read more here), Temporal and Gremlin — to understand the current state of developer relations today.

Here’s what we learned:

  1. Covid-imposed lockdowns necessitate a re-imagining of community building as a fully virtual activity (not surprising)
  2. Identifying and empowering product champions is the highest-leverage activity in the DevRel function
  3. Given the new importance of DevRel, where it sits organizationally is still in question
  4. The DevRel toolchain is immature at best, and leaves a lot to be desired

The Covid-imposed lockdowns necessitate a re-imagining of community building as a fully virtual activity. There have been some positive byproducts of working from home: (1) DevRel Slack channel activity has increased by as much as 3x at some companies and (2) DevRel activities can be more inclusive of community members who don’t live in major metropolitan areas. We heard some say DevRel leaders say they’ve found success launching online office hours; others are experimenting with entirely new channels, such as Twitch; and others still are modernizing the staid world of online education with retro role-playing games, like Twilio Quest.

Identifying and empowering product champions in the community is the highest-leverage activity in the DevRel function. Champions are the most engaged evangelists of the product — they are the people who have tied their careers and professional identities to becoming THE expert in a given product. (At AWS, champions are called “Heroes.”) Identifying and activating those champions is one of the most important activities for any DevRel function. The consensus is that champions are born, not made. Because it is hard to create a champion, effort is best spent finding and cultivating these individuals. Enthusiasm and influence are the top qualities of champions who become the most powerful voices for a DevRel organization. The intrinsic rewards for champions’ are fun (connecting with like minded people), belonging (associating themselves with a strong brand), and growth (career progression and increasing their influence).

Given the new importance of DevRel, where it sits organizationally is still in question. DevRel may be the new marketing, but if it’s going to work it can’t feel like it: developers suffer no marketing fluff. The ROI on DevRel is lead generation, and that is an argument to make it part of the marketing organization. But DevRel lead generation can only be successful if it sits close to the product and engineering teams as that’s what the developer community wants and expects: they want to be the first to know about a product roadmap and they want to be able to influence it. In some instances, DevRel has bounced back and forth between marketing and product, but no matter where it reports organizationally, it needs a direct line of communication to product managers and engineers. Sara Varni, Twilio’s CMO, shared her company’s journey to unify those two oil-and-water worlds. The best DevRel people are technical enough and know the product well. However, as the function grows and matures, non-technical roles (such as event and community management) do emerge.

The DevRel toolchain is immature at best, and leaves a lot to be desired. Everyone has a love-hate relationship with Slack for DevRel purposes. Its biggest benefit is that it can be found on the desktop of all developers, which increases engagement. But Slack’s search function is bad: discussions are not searchable on the public web and the same questions are answered over and over again. Every single DevRel leader has toyed with the idea of replacing Slack, but many are afraid of losing its distribution power. Some have taken the plunge, and explained eloquently why. Virtually all DevRel teams use multiple channels to engage with the community (GitHub, Stack Overflow, social media, etc.), yet there is no single tool to track and measure community engagement across multiple channels. Various DIY solutions have endeavored to solve this: Hootsuite in conjunction with Slack for social media and news monitoring alerts; an Airtable dashboard with some API integrations and data from Bitergia; and a custom built dashboard based on Kibana. Commsor is an interesting startup trying to unify community measurement and tracking across channels. And there are an assortment of other new technologies that DevRel leaders are testing: Bevy (virtual platform), (social events platform), Tulula (“Netflix for tech events”),, and (Community platforms).



Bogomil Balkansky
Sequoia Capital Publication

Partner at @Sequoia investing in enterprise software. 20+ yrs product and marketing leadership @VMware, @GoogleCloud. Diver, cook, photographer.