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Back to Basics: How to DevRel without Travel

jesswest profile image Jess West (she/her) ・6 min read

Developer Relations has an image problem. The job itself is an ambiguous catch-all for activities ranging from coding to public speaking, and everything in between. People spend an exorbitant amount of time arguing about defining DevRel: what title should they have, how to measure it, who has the better program and/or team, and on and on and on. Amongst all this discussion, we have individuals who come on to these teams from a variety of backgrounds for a single purpose: to make developers' lives easier. One of the ways to do this is by speaking at conferences. It's not the only way, but it is one. Somehow over the years it appears we have over-indexed on this singular facet and forgotten about the other aspects of Developer Relations. At its core, Developer Relations should be exactly what it sounds like: relating to developers. And how do you do that? You go where developers go. You engage with developers on their level of expertise and with the tools that you both use as developers. Tools found mostly on the... Internet.

The truth is, not all developers go to conferences. In fact, many of them don't have the means, or time to attend. Some of them will watch a video after the fact, but most are likely to be found deep in Stack Overflow. When they are not researching how to solve their bug, they are digging through blog posts to an eloquent solution for the problem they are currently facing, or watching a hands-on-tutorial for some new technology or a novel way of doing something.

So with this pandemic, I have great news! Developers are still using that trusty tool called the internet.

Old School

I've long idolized some of the early Developer Relations teams and what they represented. You couldn't tell the difference between a developer and a developer relations person because they were doing very similar things: coding, working on content and occasionally going to conferences. I loved that they were so authentic and able to reach developers where they were, naturally. These teams were doing everything from maintaining docs, sdks, tutorials, running and participating in hackathons, to answering questions on Stack Overflow. They were good at their job because of their authenticity, willingness to help and ability to jump from one project to another. There weren't many companies that had developer relations, but the ones that did had some pretty solid teams.

New School

We are now in a different era where many, many different companies have developer relations — —for better or for worse. We have also grown the number of conferences and hackathons significantly. From that, we've brought on a whole onslaught of developer relations professionals with a broader skillset that have helped us grow and evolve into pioneering new ideas and different areas of reach. The easiest way for these teams to feel they had value in their reach was to go give a talk, whether that was locally or getting on a plane. And because of reach, the bigger the talk, the better. And to increase reach, the more talks you could give, the better. "Bigger, better, more" became the name of the conference game. The more conferences there were popping up, the more plane tickets, talks and people they had to hire, and well, you get the idea. An illusion was created: to be effective in DevRel, you had to be on a plane.

Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten our core purpose: meet developers where they are all the time — — online, not just where they go once a year, at a conference.

The travel problem

There is a ubiquitous cost of conferences that no one talks about — — and it's not just limited to fiscal revenue; it carries personal, social and environmental impact. Don Goodman Wilson referenced this concept about two years ago in his discussion regarding our utilitarian view of flying and our decisions to travel. Review more here. There is a toll to travel, not only to our environment and our company’s bottom line but also to us individually. They are called road warriors for a reason: it is a trek. Quite often this is what we see online, where Developer Relations people talk about #devrellife, in which people are living out of their suitcases, not getting enough sleep, eating poorly and taking selfies on the plane. This all takes a toll — — not only on our bodies but on our personal and social well-being, which is not sustainable.

I like to use food as an analogy. Travel is like dessert: It’s fun, it’s exciting and I love to have it in my life. However, I don’t need it in my life and I certainly don’t need it all the time, because that’s not sustainable. We need fruits, vegetables, and proteins, which help balance things out so we can have dessert and then enjoy it more when it does come around! While travel is a great add-on for our impact as Developer Relations, it's not the core activity that brings value to the position.

Of course, this looks different for everyone: for me personally, I know I can bring value through coding or writing a blog post at home, going to my local gym and sleeping in my own bed — — these are all of the things that I need for a sustainable lifestyle. Then when I get to the opportunity to go to a conference, I amplify the impact of these activities. Here I am free to enjoy the satisfaction of my dessert, sans cavities.

Ultimately, we don’t need to travel to do our jobs well, and quite frankly we never have. Many developer relations programs specifically focus on not getting on a plane. James Governor mentions Stripe’s policy of fly less, write more in one of his talks and how excellent they are at their developer experience because of it.

Here are the questions you need to ask yourself: Is the ROI of attending a conference as high as a strong following on your written content? What about bringing a trusted resource on Stack Overflow. More generally how trusted are you as a community member?

The ugly truth is: the grind of travel is hard. And it may not have the highest ROI.

The Pandemic

So here we are in the midst of our COVID-19 crisis and there are a lot of conversations happening around how to “recreate” conferences and the Developer Relations job. We have pushed things to the summer, fall and then straight canceled many others. But the truth of the matter is we don’t know when this will be over. We don’t know the peak and the full effect it will have. Who knows when conferences will come back, and if they will even come back the same way. There is a real chance that this is the last thing to return to normalcy, whatever that may look like.

But at the core of everything, canceled conferences do not end Developer Relations —— they create an opportunity for growth. This pandemic is giving everyone the chance to reset back to the basics.

It’s not about conferences, and it never has been.

The skills that we came into developer relations with in the first place is what I like to call flexing our “Dev Rel muscle”. We can reach developers through our code contributions, our content creation, and our online community. With all of this, we can still do our jobs and do them well. Because developers, just like everyone else, are still online.

I would encourage us all to take a good hard look at our activities for the rest of the year and in general, think about the impact we are having as individuals on our developer community and for our company. We have plenty of things in our toolkit to boost our outreach during this pandemic and it's not just online conferences. As Developer Relations, we know how to code, we know how to write, we know how to be on a microphone. There is so much we can do with that trifecta alone from the comforts of our own home that can make such an impact! We don't need a fancy set up that costs hundreds or thousands to create. We just need a problem to solve and a good story to tell around it.

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Daniel Zaltsman

Bravo, Jess! Great post and perspective. Thanks for sharing and keeping all of us honest.