On March 9th, as part of our celebrations for International Women's Day, our Developer Relations team at Vonage hosted an online event on DevRel career paths. You can watch the entire panel discussion on the video below.
Our panelists Jessica West, Sarah Thiam, and Shuba Swaminathan talked about their backgrounds and how they broke into DevRel. They shared the opportunities, lessons, and challenges they faced as women in the industry and how it all shaped their career journeys. As I listened to our speakers, I appreciated their honest approach and the insights they provided. Whether you're at the start of your DevRel career journey or you're looking for that next step in a leadership role, here are 10 learnings I had from the discussion.
If there's one key takeaway from the discussion, it's that there is no same path into DevRel. The journey is multifaceted and not only informed by your studies and professional experience; the region you're based in or your community involvement can also influence your trajectory into the field. Our panelists' journey beginnings are the epitome of this. Shuba came into DevRel organically through engineering and product management, Sarah through product marketing and community events, Jessica through marketing, and then website development.
A common thread on succeeding in DevRel that emerged from the discussion was having a beginner mindset. All our speakers came into DevRel with different lenses; Shuba with that of a Product Manager, Sarah from a Product Marketer's perspective, and Jessica from Marketing. But a general characteristic they all mentioned was the ability to think like a beginner. Being empathetic and able to put yourself in the place of your customer, in most cases your customer being a developer for our panel, is a skill in itself. And to take it a step further, communicating your product’s capabilities to someone that might be a beginner user or generally a beginner in tech is essential for people in DevRel no matter what your role is.
It can be hard to break into DevRel for those who are just starting out, whatever your background may be. For Jessica, going to community events and creating opportunities outside her day-to-day work allowed her to meet people that like her didn't follow a traditional path. That affinity gave her the motivational boost she needed to pursue her first role in DevRel.
Something all our panelists were passionate about was advocating for underrepresented groups. They've all faced challenges where they were blocked or had assumptions be made because of their gender or where they were from. For Sarah, doing DevRel in Southeast Asia is a challenge, it's something new and the community is small. To help folks who are just starting out she started a group aiming to boost people up in related skills like public speaking. Wherever you are in your journey, seeking out groups so you can skill up or help others learn in this relatively new field is key for the future generations of DevRel folks.
Further to the traditional (although it can encompass a million different things) Developer Advocate role there are many other disciplines in DevRel that can often be overlooked - program and community management, content creation, technical writing. For Sarah, there needs to be more education around the different roles both for companies and for candidates.
As Jessica mentioned there can be other skills and values someone can bring into DevRel further than engineering and public speaking hours. Your diverse background, empathy, and learning capacity and how you can bring that to life into a role could be more valuable to a team or organization.
Content switching will be extremely beneficial whatever your main interest or role in DevRel is. One thing is almost certain, you'll get to "wear many hats" - engineering, product, marketing, PR (dare I say). Whatever department your team sits under, collaborating with multiple stakeholders is in almost every DevRel job ad you'll see, with the function often described as the glue of the organization. And for that collaboration to work, being a skilled communicator is key.
For Shuba, soft skills like communication are sometimes underestimated by both employers and employees and the focus is more on the engineering side of things. However, along with the beginner mindset mentioned earlier, being able to communicate up, down, or laterally on metrics, challenges and successes internally are fundamental to showcasing why DevRel matters. And certainly being a skilled communicator goes hand in hand with engaging with your developer community as well.
When asked about having a mentor or being mentors our speakers all had a similar story to share. Throughout their careers, they've turned connections and friendships they've made into their own board of advisors. A collective of people with different skills and expertise who you can reach out to depending on what you need, for advice or just a reality check. For Shuba, being able to air a challenge you're facing in a safe space before taking it to your manager can help you become more self-aware when the time comes to have that conversation. And as for Jessica's community ties, bringing the outside perspective can help you with what you need in different situations.
Authenticity is not a new concept in DevRel. Your community will want to get to know you and learn from you, not only because the tech you talk about is cool but also because of who you are. Showing your authentic self can be hard but our speakers all agreed it's harder to maintain an untrue image in a publicly facing (or any for that matter) role. And especially for women and underrepresented groups in DevRel, we need to not only create safer spaces both online (especially) and in-person for that to happen, but also to keep growing the circle of allies in organizations and communities.
We can all at times be our own worst critics. When questioning whether you can do something or whether you're good enough, try looking at it from a different lens. Would your colleague think the same about you? Or as Sarah said, would someone of a different gender, role title, who's in a different region think they can or cannot do what you're trying to achieve? Our speakers discussed how DevRel can be challenging on its own and for those who have faced assumptions and biases even more so. However, as Jessica put it, "peacocking" or claiming your space and making a statement that you belong, can be motivating and empowering.
You may already be a senior DevRel leader or want to grow into that role. In order to be successful at that level, you need to be able to zoom in and out of the picture - you need to have a helicopter view, being to see the bigger picture of the impact DevRel has in the organization and at the same time you need to be helping out your team on how to measure success or tackle projects. As with the board of advisors (and this is true for any manager), creating a safe space for your team to ask questions with no stigma is another leadership quality our panelists felt was key to setting up your reports for success.
Our speakers raised two main points around this. During the interview process take the time to familiarize yourself with the company's product. The number one thing you'll be talking about in any DevRel role is what your product's key differentiator is. For engineering-focused roles, understanding the customer or developer experience is key - go through onboarding, look at SDK libraries, create a demo, read through the documentation, and bring feedback you have into the interview. For community-focused roles, look at online forums, try to attend events, and bring in the external community member perspective into the conversation.
At the same time, be sure to ask questions about what DevRel means to the company you're interviewing with. The role you might have in mind and the one they could be hiring for could be different. Ask where DevRel sits within the organization, read through the job description carefully, and clarify to avoid any mismatch between expectations.
DevRel is continuously growing and becoming more of a discipline. As Shuba mentioned during our panel, product-led companies are currently showing the most growth, and DevRel bringing the outside perspective has a key role to play in these environments as the connecting glue between the different departments in the organization.
Interested in a career in DevRel? Check out our open roles here.