With community and Developer Experience taking on greater priority across the technology sector, Developer Relations (DevRel) has had to adapt and connect with developers beyond technical expertise. Besides as DevRel continues to change shape across companies, it also serves as a springboard to diverse career paths given the transferable skills built in areas like communicating complex concepts, understanding user needs, and bridging gaps between teams. In this episode, experienced DevRel Jeremy Meiss outlines the growing importance of DevRel in community and Developer Experience as well as the diverse career paths for DevRel professionals.
In his 30 years in tech, Jeremy Meiss has fulfilled multiple roles—from development to consulting, and even pioneering in DevOps in 1995, a role then known as CIS or network admin. Yet, most of his career has been dedicated to the DevRel space, working at companies like Solace and Auth0, and, more recently, being head of DevRel and community director at CircleCI.
Withal, Jeremy didn’t get into DevRel pursuing it as a career, but rather, by chance. After encountering a problem with a device at his full-time job, he started participating in a software community that followed that issue. Soon enough, his involvement grew to the point of becoming a community admin.
When Jeremy started reaching out to the companies creating those devices and talking to them about the community software, he took the role of equipment manufacturer (OEM) relations, in which he helped “Samsung and Sony and HTC and other companies understand how to work with the developer community, and then how does the developer community work with the OEMs.” It was at this point that Jeremy began to understand his role, he joined a developer relations community. This pivotal moment helped Jeremy solidify his understanding of his role, leading him to immerse himself in the developer relations community and discover his career path, recognizing the potential to carve a fulfilling career within the domain of developer relations.
Also, during his time at Hallmark Cards, Jeremy acted as what is now known as an internal developer advocate or internal DevRel. He was responsible for communicating between the technical and non-technical teams within the company, explaining technical concepts to non-technical people, and translating the needs of non-technical people to technical people. Jeremy says that internal DevRel teams are most commonly found at large companies that have a lot of internally developed tools: “You might have 10,000 developers and they don’t know that they’re supposed to be able to use X tool that’s been created to streamline this other process they do”. These companies need a way to ensure that their developers are aware of and using all of the tools that are available to them and “build an internal community of developers for a product.”
The formation and evolution of the DevRel role
Jeremy dates the role of DevRel back to the mid-nineties when large companies began to understand the importance of getting developers involved in their products. At that time, Jeremy recalls, Netscape named a director of Developer Relations whose role was “to work with developers on how to build websites for Netscape;” in like manner, “Microsoft had a VP of DevRel in marketing, back in ’97” and “Apple had their own […] and they even called it the chief contact with the development community.”
Back then, Jeremy adds, DevRel was understood as a centralized, single-advocate role, which was called “developer evangelist because you’re about spreading the good news about whatever the product was.” However, none of “those companies actually still do DevRel in the same way as they did then.” To Jeremy’s understanding, DevRel “is supposed to change, it’s supposed to fit the mold of whatever the company is doing, whatever the company’s product is, who the customer is.”
To this end, today’s DevRel favors having multiple advocates, and has to adapt to the multiple ways companies do business nowadays: “We started to see a lot more segments of business to developer, business to consumer, and business to business,” says Jeremy. The way of doing business determines DevRel responsibilities; consequently, “what developer relations entails now is a lot broader,” as “the role for developer relations has to bring up new different roles to respond to the business.” As such, “developer experience has become a term, a department, an organization, where before that really was just something you did.”
Grasping community and communication
Among these new ways of doing business is community-led growth. To Jeremy, there are no shortcuts in this approach; hence, companies can only build a business from the community if they are willing to invest the time, which means learning to communicate consistently and correctly with developers.
According to Jeremy, effective communication between developers and product teams is nurtured by feedback loops: DevRel professionals have to identify the developer, their company, and their specific experiences, to humanize the feedback, making it more impactful and less likely to be dismissed. This personalized feedback loop, he believes, leads to more informed product decisions and ultimately, a better product experience.
To this end, building community demands companies to be in front of developers, both online and offline. When Jeremy started in tech, developer conferences, key to cementing development relations, weren’t as common as today. In this context, online forums were “connection points” that, nonetheless, weren’t easy to find and were formed around a certain technology, like language or framework, instead of the developers themselves.
Gathering and conveying feedback can be harder in online interactions, Jeremy believes, particularly due to the tendency to mask genuine opinions behind a digital shield. In turn, face-to-face interactions foster a sense of vulnerability and encourage more honest and actionable feedback. Still, “community and working with developer relations is going to where your users are,” he says, emphasizing that while “people still desire a face-to-face interaction,” “it is still important for companies to have some type of online engagement.” As such, forums serve as a knowledge base users can participate and also search forums, unlike Discord or Slack, which, in turn, provide real-time interactions.
Moving to DevRel
For those considering a career move toward DevRel, Jeremy understands that “being able to have empathy, really feel and understand what somebody is experiencing, is a big part of the role.” As such, while this role demands to have at least some technical background to be “able to really understand, and be able to take back what their experience is and accurately communicate it to the product teams,” it doesn’t mean that just by being a developer you can become a developer advocate.
Still, Jeremy believes that developer advocacy is a good path for engineers, as they “have that empathy that comes from having done the role in some way”. Likewise, he confesses to “have seen a lot of solution engineers move into developer advocacy,” since “they already understand a lot of the pain points, they understand the product, they understand communicating.”
Jeremy is confident of the growth opportunities and diverse career paths available to DevRel professionals. For those looking to position themselves for success in DevRel, he advises actively seeking feedback from customers, delving deeper into their concerns, and documenting their findings. Proactivity demonstrates the value of DevRel within the company and also provides insights for product development.
Simultaneously, Jeremy recommends looking for career paths beyond DevRel. Some companies may not have well-defined career paths for DevRel professionals. However, the transferable skills and expertise gained in DevRel can lead to diverse career opportunities. Jeremy specifically mentions product management, solution engineering, and product marketing as potential avenues for advancement:
- Product management. DevRel professionals often have a deep understanding of user needs and pain points, making them well-suited for product management roles.
- Solution engineering. Solution engineers combine technical expertise with communication skills to help customers implement and optimize software solutions. DevRel professionals’ ability to interact with developers and understand their needs makes them strong candidates for solution engineering roles.
- Product marketing. Product marketing involves crafting and communicating the messaging around a product to targeted audiences. DevRel professionals’ understanding of the developer community and their ability to translate technical concepts into clear messaging make them valuable assets in product marketing teams.