Hiring the first developer advocate

Hiring a developer advocate is a challenge every developer-first company faces. With the rise of developer-first companies, developer advocates are increasingly in high demand. Yet, there still remains a lot of variance in the practices of hiring and building developer relations teams across companies.

Community management is one of the most important aspects of running a developer-first company. In the earliest stages, the responsibility is often distributed across the founding team, which is an approach that makes sense given resource constraints and because it allows founders to develop an understanding for the role themselves. However, community management done well is a full-time job, and hiring someone to focus exclusively on it shouldn’t be delayed for too long.

We recently hosted a roundtable discussion with a group of founders that shared their thoughts and experiences on the subject. It’s clear that the topic remains multi-faceted and that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Below, we synthesized some of the thoughts and perspectives that arose during the conversation. It’s in bullet point format to facilitate easy reading, and, we hope, something that can be helpful if hiring a developer advocate for your company.

What does a developer advocate do in an early stage startup?

  • Acts as the connective tissue between the company and the developer community around the product.
  • Helps developers build with (i.e. development framework) or build on top of the product (i.e. API).
  • Clearly communicates the vision and roadmap of the company to developers by speaking at conferences, hosting meetups, blogging about the technology, and through additional communications methods that build access to the product.
  • Engages in discussion and answers questions across the different channels where the community resides (Slack, Github, Stack Overflow, Spectrum etc.).
  • Collects and relays feedback from the community back to the company, essentially acting as the voice of the community within the company.
  • Facilitates product usage through writing documentation, recording videos / tutorials, and running workshops.

What is the profile of a developer advocate?

  • The orthodox answer is someone with a technical background who is also a good communicator.
  • Finding this profile can be tough due to the different skillsets this blend requires, as a lot of developers, even though they are strong communicators, prefer not to communicate with the consistency that is needed to maintain a strong community.
  • While plenty of people disagree with me on this point, I would say hiring a strong and willing communicator vs. uncompromisingly looking for someone with a technical background is the way to go.
  • Curiosity about new technologies and the willingness to learn about them can compensate for lack of a technical background.
  • A high degree of empathy is the most important trait of a developer advocate. There are few quantifiable metrics that accurately convey the health of a developer community. Developer advocates need to have a strong feel for the pulse of the community they are managing, and be comfortable with ‘softer’ signals that give an indication of its health.

Why should I hire a developer advocate early?

  • To build and manage a community properly is a full time job. Allow the rest of the team to focus on building the product, while somebody owns the responsibility of community management.
  • To help inform product decisions. Usage and revenue figures give you the hard truth about the performance of your product, but community feedback helps contextualize the numbers and provides qualitative feedback that can be acted upon.
  • To facilitate early usage and success of the product. The engineering team is typically strained with executing on the product roadmap and fixing bugs. Developer advocates interface directly with the user and ensure that the product is used successfully.
  • To generate buzz around your product. Developer marketing shares a lot of similarities with consumer marketing — they are both influencer and brand driven. Having someone manage your relationship with developers who, beyond using your product, can also entice others to do so, is extremely high leverage.

When is early and where should I look?

Hire when managing the community well becomes too much. Founders might think that they can distribute the task amongst themselves for a long time until:

  • Questions from community members don’t get answered on time
  • Documentation is out of date, which prevents developers from properly using the product
  • Developers are unsure of the roadmap and go elsewhere, etc.
  • Community management is a core strategic task. After you raise your first round of funding, it’s a good time to start looking for a developer advocate.
  • Your community is the best channel to hire from. Hiring from the community allows you to hire somebody that is genuinely interested in what you are building. Engaged members have likely already contributed in one way or another, through answering questions, writing content / documentation etc., which are the responsibilities a developer advocate would do as well. Apart from getting someone that is innately interested in what you are building, you also get the added insight of studying the work they would do on the job.

How do I build an early stage developer relations team?

  • The first developer advocate you hire needs to cover a lot at once. Once the company matures, a developer relations team can be built to help distribute the responsibility of the first developer advocate.
  • Strapi, has developed a structure that carves out two different roles from the initial developer advocate:
  • Evangelists: they fulfill more of a marketing function and are charged with spreading the message and taking care of communications at the top of the funnel.
  • Advocates: more a customer success / support role. They need to be technical, as they help with customer product implementation / trouble shooting. They are further down the funnel and ensure that the product works in the hands of customers.
  • Additionally, technical writers can be brought on board to focus on writing documentation and other technical content.