Developer

Trondheim Developer Conference 2018 – One day, three talks and many happy moments

I just got back from Trondheim, Norway where I once again spoke at the Trondheim Developer Conference. The last time I spoke there four years ago and I had a great time and I have to say nothing changed – it is still a conference well worth going to.

The amazing keynote stage

I was pretty impressed to see that the conference videos were available the day after the event, so I am happy to give you all the materials of my participation and some of the things that impressed me.

Setting up the AI talk

The keynote: Watch this space

In this keynote I am talking about protecting the open web as a publishing platform by improving the quality of our work. We’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge over the years, and yet it seems new developers always start from scratch. By making our best practices part of the start of your career and embedding them in tools, we can have a new generation of developers who can invent amazing things that don’t break.

Chris Heilmann – Watch this space! from TrondheimDC on Vimeo.

The slides of the keynote are available on notist

Seven things to make you a happier JavaScript developer

This talk wasn’t planned but as another speaker couldn’t make it, I filled in.

Chris Heilmann – Seven ways to be a happier JavaScript developer from TrondheimDC on Vimeo.

The slides and resources of this JS talk are on notist

Kode24 did a great write-up of this talk on their site called Stop using console.log.

AI for humans

Linda Liukas' machine learning robot

The last talk was about using AI to build more human interfaces.

Chris Heilmann – Artificial intelligence for humans… from TrondheimDC on Vimeo.

The slides of the AI talk are here

Happy Moments

Book stand at TDC with robot sex front and center

Great talks to watch

If you are looking for inspiration, there were a few talks that stood out for me:

Planning for next year

One great side note: the organisers asked me about more female Europe-based speakers to invite so I collected a few in a tweet.

This thread snowballed and is now a superb reference for presenting talent in Europe.

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Developer Relations revelations: social media can be pretty anti-social

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

Loose tweets sink fleets

So, today, let’s talk about social media.

Social media is one of the most powerful things for a DevRel person. It is also a tricky one to navigate. As a DevRel person you skate on thin ice. You need to remain a person and a face people can remember and feel comfortable contacting. But you also represent a company.

People on social media are much more likely to follow and listen to a personal voice than a company account. In my personal experience, you also have more longevity. A corporate account promoting a product can cause a massive spike in traffic. A personal account causes traffic for a few days. People are reading your updates at different paces.

So, as a DevRel person, you have the challenge of having to be yourself and to represent a company. And that comes with a lot of baggage.

You need to be careful not to mix your personal views (or ones that people think you have) with company updates. And there is no such thing as “sins of the past”. What you posted and how you acted can be dug up years later and used against you. Many celebrities right now have the same experience. DevRel people – for better or worse – are minor celebrities (in most cases we don’t want to but it happens). So, the glib post you put out in a party mood five years ago can and will be used against you.

I am trying to mitigate this risk by having a detailed Twitter manifesto where I explain my usage of the channel in detail. I am pretty sure that this will not mean much when push comes to shove but I had good feedback on it.

My rule of thumb is that social media is an entry point. An entry point to get people to communicate with you one on one. An entry point to get people to use official channels to voice their ideas and concerns. I avoid having long conversations and communication threads on social media. The reason is that they always end up messy, because social media isn’t social any longer – it is a business.

Social media is a numbers game

People game social media – big time. By now it feels spammy and annoying. “Growth hackers” and “Social Media Experts” spoil it for everyone. It feels like back when Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) messed with the web. Our carefully crafted and educational posts drowned in a mess of “7 things you should know about…” and “45 essential jQuery plugins” bullshit articles, crafted to optimise eyeballs and clicks. Social media is a similar race at the moment. You can buy followers and likes and many a bot upvotes others. Adding your voice to a thread – no matter how wrong – gives you eyeballs. Almost every longer conversation sooner or later ends up with baiting and leading people to say something controversial that can be taken out of context. You somehow need to stand out of this quagmire. I got to be very careful over the years, and actively avoid getting roped into discussions.

Separation of products and people is a must

Social media is full of terrible people and bots you don’t want to get associated with – even by accident. Who you retweet and share also reflects on you. So be aware what and who you endorse. Make it perfectly clear that an endorsement of a product doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the creators.

Context on social media is a joke

Whatever you put on social media will be taken out of context. Make sure your updates are clear and precise. Don’t allow people to quote you to support something you don’t want to be associated with. This is especially dangerous when you talk about your competition. Negative remarks about them are completely out as this is a headline in the making you don’t want to defend yourself against. Positive remarks about your competition can easily turn into a messy conversation with your own company (more on that in the final part of this series). But here’s the issue – to be successful on social media as a DevRel person, you have to talk about other products than your own. And that includes your competition.

You are always one remark away from being a shill

OK, we all know that you are paid to represent your company, its products and get people to try them out. You are also there to get feedback and bring that back to the company. All this is dependent on your reputation and the trust people have in you as an expert in the field. That’s why it is imperative that you have your ear on the ground and talk about exciting things on social media. You need to be a go-to expert for people to find out about exciting new things and to get feedback on their own ideas and products. The perfect scenario is when your products are making a lot of sense to you. Then you can promote them by showing what you build with them. But, the more successful you become, the more your company will also ask you to promote their other products. And this is where it gets annoying to be on social media. When you promote a product people know you don’t use you will get a lot of backlash. Often it makes most sense to point to other social media accounts to do that promotion. Or to coach the other department of the company to create some post or demo that you can point to without looking like a sales rep.

What your company does is all your fault

On the flipside, whatever your company does will always be your fault. It doesn’t matter if you are one of thousands of people in the company. It doesn’t matter that you are far removed from the product or the happening that annoyed people. You are publicly visible, available and you have a history of being responsive. So there you are.

This gets tougher, the bigger your company is, and the more the press loves to report about it. Talking to colleagues at Google, Samsung and other big players, we all have the same experiences. It is pretty unfair to have your life decisions questioned every time something controversial happens to your employer. It is even worse when people ask you about a quick statement. Often because what your company allegedly did is at odds with what you are about. The very important solution to covering your arse here is to have a good relationship with the PR department of your company. Don’t fall for the bait, don’t make public statements. By all means, though, report in the company what you heard – that’s where changes can happen.

You’re seen as the magic way-in

On a less stressful topic, people will always assume that you wield a magic wand to get things done in your company. That bug report a random department of your company hasn’t answered in months? Sure you can simply talk to them and it will get fixed immediately? That just announced new product or service? Surely you have a free one lying around? And you can get one of your thousands of online friends free, unlimited access. You also have the magic powers to get anyone hired without any of the normal procedures, right?

All this is flattering, but also dangerous. Communication channels in your company are there for a reason. You can sometimes accelerate them, but it is important to do a cursory introduction and then pull out. You don’t want to constantly play a game of telephone being a mediator as that takes up far too much of your time.

Alas, it makes a lot of sense to be active on social media

Social media is a great way to get information out, and to keep up to date with what other people are doing. As a DevRel person, it is much more agile and simple than cold-call emailing people. The main task though is find a good balance of staying true to yourself but not fall into any of the dozens of traps social media has these days. You are under a massive spotlight, better watch your moves and count to ten before you answer and publish something that can never be undone.

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Developer Relations revelations: travel is hard work

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

So, today, let’s talk about traveling.

Sleeping on a plane

When I worked for the Red Cross with elderly people one thing became pretty obvious to me. People who traveled in their lives were not only more interesting, but also aged much better. They had more energy, showed more excitement about new things and generally felt more alive.

Traveling as a DevRel person isn’t like that. It can easily be the exact opposite.

Coming from a low-end working class family traveling around the world always was a dream for me. Each holiday was cramming the family in a car and driving 14 hours to Italy to go camping. To the same place every year. And yet, I made the best of it. I loved going to highway stops seeing cars and trucks from all kind of countries. I deliberately chose to work on the web as it meant I can connect to people from all over. Getting to know them, finding out our differences and maybe – if I every get really lucky – visit them in real life.

From this point of view my job right now seems a dream come true. It seems that I get paid to travel the world. I have Gold status with one airline affiliate group for three years running. I have Silver and Gold status with a few hotel chains. My travel history is pretty impressive:

My travel statistics, 965369 miles traveled, 1931 hours in the air, 27 countries and 48 destinations

My Android location history
My Android location history See yours here

Here’s the thing though: travel for work is not at all like being on a holiday. It is taxing. It takes a toll on your health, it takes a heavy toll on your relationships and it is very easy to overdo it. You need to be happy with being on your own and being the only person to rely on. You also need to ensure that all your creature comforts get covered. This is often at odds with the budget of conferences or your company’s expense policies.

Faux Jet-Set

There is a strange disconnect in business travel. You are part of the jet set but you almost never have time to enjoy it. On paper it feels great to have travelled to all these cool destinations. In reality all you see is the airport, some means of transport, your hotel room and the event venues. This can be depressing. You constantly have this carrot of world traveler excitement in front of you. To experience it you would need to sacrifice free time. The days before and after an event are crucial for our jobs and it is hard to tack on a few in each direction.

A constant “do I deserve this” feeling

Lonely meals and nondescript rooms are much less fun when you didn’t hang out with people you know. And you don’t want to add yourself to other groups or ask people to dine with you as that would be work. And you need to ensure you have some time off to re-charge. Interestingly enough, the fancier the accommodation is the worse I feel. When I am in a really cool hotel and have no time to use the facilities other than crashing for a few hours I feel weird. I spend other people’s money without reaping the rewards. Trying the hotel out for a holiday later is not as common as they tend to be costly or optimised for business travel.

It is important to be on the road. A two minute face-to-face conversation is often worth weeks of emails, chats or calls. Meeting people where they are can open great opportunities for you and your company. So, here are a few tips that helped me on the way and still make it much easier for me.

Find an airline alliance to collect points and status with.

That means things that don’t sound much but will add a lot to your well-being.

  • You do not have to worry about luggage restrictions.
  • You get priority boarding, which means you can book a cheaper seat and still get on the plane first. You can store your hand luggage above instead of having to keep it at your feet.
  • It is imperative that sooner or later you get lounge access. This turns a layover caused by a missed plane from a nightmare to an opportunity to get some work out of the way. Then you can sleep or relax on the plane.
  • You are also more likely to get upgrades if you have status with an airline. Conferences or your company can book you an economy ticket and yet you travel in comfort.

All hotel loyalty systems are pants

Hotel loyalty systems only give you proper benefits when you book on their web sites or in their apps. With your own, personal credit card. If, like me, you have a corporate card, the most you get is a free bottle of water on check-in (yay?) and late check-outs. There is not much point to be loyal in this case. Something else is much more important when it comes to hotels.

Your hotel matters

Your hotel on a company trip can either be a place to crash at night or your base of operations. I try to make sure I can do the latter. That means the most important part is that it is close to where I need to be. You don’t want to spend a lot of time in transit between hotel and event, carrying a lot of swag and hardware with you. If that means you stay in a cheaper, but closer, hotel, this is a good thing. If it means the conference or your company needs to pay more, so be it. Most trips I do are short which means I will spend most of my time at the event. Having a fancy hotel isn’t useful when you have no time to enjoy it. The most important bits are that the place is clean, has fast connectivity in your room, and is easy to reach.

Stay active – or your health will suffer

If you can, try to find a hotel with a gym – no matter how basic. It is the best thing to fight jetlag and to clear your head. It is also important. When you travel, you sit a lot and you don’t move on a plane. That’s bad for you. You also consume a lot of food and drink on planes and you don’t give your body a challenge to burn it. I found that going to the gym before and after events allowed me to be much more energetic. Look after yourself – nobody else does.

If you’re tired or sick, your work will suffer

Jetlag is a pain and will turn you into a liability. You can not be in a stressful environment when you are not awake and relaxed. You will make mistakes, you will say things you can regret online later and you won’t be able to take in as much as you need. So look after yourself and get sleep when you can. You don’t need to be part of every social activity of an event and should sneak out for a kip whenever you can. Try to get enough time to deal with jetlag and look at what you eat and drink. You can not get sick. And believe me, this is a full-time job. Time differences, over-zealous air conditioning, pressurised aircraft and unknown food all mess with your body. Everyone I know working in DevRel carries a bag of medication. Acid reflux, indigestion, unwanted bowel movements and sore throats and runny noses. All commonplace enough to prepare for them.

Adding to that is that being on the road and constantly having to adapt does things to you. In Pattern Recognition William Gibson describes jetlag as “your soul trying to catch up with you” and that is pretty accurate. Being more emotional without planning to is common on planes. There is a lot of research into Why people cry on planes and I also find myself doing that.

Take care of yourself, please.

Point-to-point annoyances

One thing I am adamant about is that a conference or office makes it as easy as possible for me to get from the airport to where I need to go. I don’t want to deal with pushy unlicensed cabbies. It is also not fun to try to use public transport in a place you don’t know after 30 hours in the air. This may sound whiny and “first world problem”-ish but any minute wasted on the road isn’t doing you any favours. At least demand a good explanation what to do to get there from the people who invited you.

Expenses sound fun, but aren’t

Living on expenses sounds great, right? It is, to a degree, and it would be much harder – and silly – to spend your own money to do your job. But it also means that you need to be diligent about keeping receipts, and note down who you ate with, what and when. You often also have a company card unknown or unsafe to use in a certain place. Then you need to get money out. And you need to explain your company why you didn’t pay by card, suffering twice from the lack of support. It is important to do your expenses on the spot after your trip. Otherwise you end up delayed and get fined. It has become much easier to file expenses digitally now. I remember typing in all receipts, staple them to a piece of paper and mailing them to a different office. Yet, often you wait for weeks for things to get sorted out even now.

Summary: DevRel travel is lost time

When you travel as a DevRel, travel is not a gift any longer. It is a necessary part of your job. Where it is OK to rough it for a holiday, you shouldn’t sell yourself short when it comes to travel for work. It adds to the stress of your job. It takes up a lot of time you could be doing things to diminish the workload you already have. Whilst you can work in a lounge and on a plane I find it not that fruitful. Often I am tired, or euphoric about a certain topic and write a lot of things that sound lucid but are a write-off later on. One exception is going through emails on a plane. Being offline is a great opportunity to take time answering them without distractions. Traveling as a Developer Relations person is a lot of time a matter of good negotiation. Don’t try to be nice by allowing people to put you on a cheap flight and the wrong hotel. You don’t do them any favours as they would get a grumpy, non-effective you rather than the person they invited.

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Developer Relations revelations: workshops are a lot of communication work

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

So, today, let’s talk about giving workshops.

Giving a workshop is very different to presenting and needs a different skillset. Whilst preparing a great talk already takes a lot of time, workshops are a different beast. As a rule of thumb, a good trainer spends eight hours research and preparation for each hour of a workshop.

Workshops are where you can’t fake anything. It is not enough to know the subject matter inside-out. You also need to deal with the attendees. Their requests, different speeds and knowledge levels. You need to lead the group and guide it. And you can’t do that if you don’t feel confident about the material or know much about the group you will teach.

Workshops are much less forgiving than presentations. Only a few people will complain about a bad presenter at a conference. It doesn’t feel like a waste of money to get the conference ticket when there was one dud. Workshops are much more expensive and more personal, that’s why criticism is harsher.

Conference organisers like having workshop days as they are much more profitable. Most of the ticket money of events needs to get into venue, catering, speaker fees and travel. Workshop ticket sales get shared with the teacher with a higher profit margin. Venues are often sponsored by companies. For freelance speakers this is great, as it means more money.

For a DevRel person it is trickier, as you represent a company and you have a different agenda. You need not to get people excited about your knowledge but also about the things you represent. That’s why it is also tougher to sell and fill a workshop as a DevRel person. Your workshops are seen as something that should be free and it is OK to put not as much effort in as an attendee. That doesn’t mean though that they are easier to create and run. At all.

With this increased pressure, it is tough to feel great about your workshops as a DevRel person. Your company will most likely want you to create a generic course. One that shows off the benefits of your products.

This makes sense, as it is an upfront investment of time and money. A lot of the products I worked with benefitted from workshops. You find gaps in the documentation, you see where people get lost, and what technical difficulties come up. All great opportunities to improve your product.

The great thing about generic courses is that they are reusable and measurable. The bad thing about them is that they make for disappointing workshops. You might as well have them online as a course with offline participation instead.

I feel a lot of worry about delivering workshops as they are important. Teaching is a tough job and a bad teacher can utterly mess up a subject. Remember school? All the topics taught by a great teacher are things I still love. All the topics run by a lackluster by-the-book teacher I had to re-learn later in life.

A workshop is much higher stress for you. Your passion, your excitement, your fearlessness to play make the course. It is uncommon to have “bad attendees” as they have a much bigger stake in the workshop than listening to a talk.

Your mistakes, your lack of passion, your sloppiness multiplies with the attendees. That’s why you need to be on your toes for the whole duration of the workshop.

The fun bit about teaching is to find out how people tick and what they need to understand something. It is not about telling them a lot of information and hope things stick. Humans keep information they found out on their own much more than those they had to memorise.

That’s why I want a workshop to be a real workshop. I want to know who will come, what their levels of knowledge are and have them set up their computers in advance. I might as well want X-Ray vision, as the sad fact is that often you need to face the following issues:

  • People who hired you expect you to give a five hour presentation showing a lot of technical demos for people to maybe take part in
  • You have no idea how many people and who will show up to your workshop
  • You face a room full of 50 people – no way you can help them individually or even pair them up to help each other
  • Half the people don’t come back after a break as their boss called them out to do “something important”
  • A large part of the group didn’t bring a computer or didn’t expect having to do anything
  • You end up being helpdesk for faulty computer configurations of the attendees’ computers
  • You end up being offline when most of your materials need a connection or are a download to start with

To run a successful workshop you need to prepare for these. That’s why it is much more important to be clear and demanding in your communication. People who invite you to give a workshop often want a detailed outline of it. Make sure that this also contains detailed information about the needs you have. Setup of the room, the machines of the attendees, detailed timing and attendance demands. It may feel bad to be such a stickler for details, but anything you leave to interpretation will come back to haunt you and cost time. Time you can’t use to help attendees reach the goal of the workshop. Time you need to work with individuals whilst you lose the group.

Don’t be the bad teacher that messed up a subject for you. Workshops have detailed outcomes and you need to measure at the end of them if people learned something. This might be hard to swallow when it didn’t work, but it really helps being excited about your job when it does.

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Developer Relations revelations: presenting at a conference is much more than your talk

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

So, today, let’s talk about giving presentations.

Chris and unicorn in oil
Artistic impression by Anke Mehlert (@larryandanke) what it looks like when I present

As this is a “warts and all” series of posts, I’ll cover the following aspects:

  • Preparing your presentation for various audiences
  • Frustrations and annoyances to prepare for – things that always go wrong
  • Getting ready to be on stage
  • Things to avoid on stage
  • Planning the follow-up
  • The weirdness of making it measurable

Public speaking is tough

Me, presenting

Giving a presentation, or even having to speak in front of a group is the stuff of nightmares for a lot of people. There are so many things that can go wrong and you have nowhere to hide as you are the centre of attention.

It is not easy, and it shouldn’t be. I’ve been presenting at hundreds of meetings and events over the last decade. Every time I go up on stage, I am scared, worried and my tummy imitates the sounds of a dying whale. I also hope against hope that I won’t mess up. This is normal, this is healthy, and it keeps me humble and – hopefully – interesting. Sure, it gets a bit easier, but the voice in your head telling you that it is not normal that people care for what you have to say will never go away. So that’s something to prepare for.

Now, there is a lot of information out there about becoming a great presenter. A lot of it is about the right way to speak, breathe and move. You can even cheat yourself into appearing more confident using Power Poses.

I am coaching people on public speaking. And I found out pretty early that “being a great presenter” is a very personal thing. The techniques needed differ from person to person. There is no silver bullet for you to instantly become a great presenter. It is up to you to find your voice and way of presenting that makes you most confident. Your confidence and excitement is what makes a presentation successful. To a degree this happens in equal measures.

It is great to see presenters admitting not being experts but sharing what got them excited about the topic they cover. Much better than someone faking confidence or repeating tired old truths that can’t be disagreed with.

When you look around on the web for presentation tips there is a lot of thinly veiled advertising for a course, workshop or books. Once you become a known presenter, you don’t even have to look. You get spam mail offering you magical products to give awesome presentations. Others offer you to create materials for your talks and style your slides.

Here’s the thing: none of that is making that much of a difference. Your slides and their form are not that important. They should be wallpaper for your presentation. In the end, you have to carry the message and captivate the audience, not read a deck out to them.

Except, it does make a difference. Not for your talk, but for everyone else involved in it.

Players two, three and four have entered the game

Now, as I already hammered home in the last post, as a DevRel person you are not representing yourself, but also a group or company. That means, that you have a lot more work to prepare a presentation. You need to juggle demands of:

  • Your company and colleagues
  • The conference organisers
  • The audience
  • People who later on will watch the video of the talk
  • Those peering over the social media fence to add their ideas to fragments of information regardless of context

Seperating from your company is tough but needed

Here’s the biggest issue. Technical audiences hate sales pitches. They also hate marketing. They go to a tech event to hear from peers and to listen to people they look up to.

As soon as you represent a company there is already a sense of dread that they’ll find a shill wasting their time. This gets worse the bigger your company is and the older it is. People have a preconception of your company. This could be beneficial “Cool, there is a NASA speaker at that event”. Or it could be a constant struggle for you having to explain that things your company did or other departments do aren’t your fault. It could also be a struggle for you when all you have from your company is marketing messages. Messages that are groan-worthy for technical people but sound great in the press.

Do yourself a favour and be adamant that you own your presentations. You don’t want to get into the stress of presenting a peer-reviewed “reusable slide deck” of your company.

Be proactive in writing and owning your talks. Make sure your company knows what you do and why your talk is a great thing for them. You are on the clock and you are spending their money. That’s why you can’t use presenting only to further your personal brand – something needs to come out of it. That, of course, is tricky to get right, but there are some ways to make it worth while – more on that later.

Helping conference organisers

Conference organisers have a tough job. They don’t only need to wrangle the demands of the audience and locations. They also are responsible for everything that happens on stage. Thus it is understandble that they want to know as much as possible about your talk before it happens. This can get weird.

I often get asked for insipirational, cutting edge talks. In the same sentence I’m asked to deliver the slides months in advance. This is impossible unless you keep the talk very meta. Blue-sky, meta talks don’t help your company or your product. They advocate yourself as a visionary and an important voice in the market, which is good for the company. But tough to explain to the product teams how it affects their work.

In any case, it is a great idea to make the lives of conference organisers easier by having things ready for them. These include:

  • A great title and description of your talk
  • A description of the skill level you expect from the audience
  • An up-to-date bio to add to their materials
  • A few good photos of you
  • Your name, job description, company
  • Ways to connect to you on social media
  • Things you published or resources you maintain

These make it easier for the conference to drum up excitement about your talk and yourself. This can mean the difference between speaking to an empty or full room at the event.

Many events will want slides in advance. I tend to not do that as it limits me and often I get inspiration on the flight there. The only exception is if the event offers translation and especially sign translation. Then I provide slides, extensive notes that I will stick to and a list of special terms and what they mean. It is not fun when you talk about databases and the audience looks confused as the translator talks about kitchen tables.

Making it easier for the audience

I am a firm believer that you should separate yourself from your slides to deliver a great talk. I also realised that this often is wishful thinking.

You will hear a lot of “best practices” about slides and not having much text on them but set the mood instead. That’s true, but there is also a benefit to words on slides. Of course, you shouldn’t read your slides, but having a few keywords to aid your story help. They help you in your presentation flow. They also help an audience that doesn’t speak your language and miss out some of the nuances you add to your talk.

If your slides make at least some sort of sense without your narration you can reach more people. Most conferences will make the slides available. Every single time I present the first question of the audience is if they can get the slides. Most conferences record you and your slides. A sensible deck makes the video recording easier to understand.

When you considered all this, you can go on stage and give the audience what they are looking for. The next thing to tackle is stage technology.

Things that go wrong on stage

Ok, here comes trouble. Stage technology is still our enemy. Expect everything to go wrong.

  • Bring your own power adaptor, remote and connectors but don’t expect there to be a power plug.
  • Don’t expect dongles to work with long cables on stage
  • Don’t expect to be able to use the resolution of your computer
  • Learn about fixing resolution and display issues yourself – often the stage technicians don’t know your OS/device
  • Expect to show a 16:9 presentation in 4:3 and vice versa
  • Expect nothing to look on the projector like it does on your computer
  • Use slide decks and editors/terminals with large fonts and high contrast.
  • Don’t expect videos and audio to play; be prepared to explain them instead
  • Do not expect to be online without having a fallback solution available.
  • Expect your computer to do random annoying things as soon as you go on stage.
  • Reboot your machine before going up there
  • Turn off all notifications and ways for the audiences to hijack your screen
  • Make sure you have a profile only for presenting that has the least amount of apps installed.
  • Expect your microphone to stop working at any time or to fall off your head getting entangled in your hair/earrings/glasses/beard
  • Expect to not see the audience because of bright lights in your eyes
  • Expect to have terrible sound and hearing random things in the background and/or other presentations in adjacent rooms
  • Expect any of your demos to catch fire instead of doing what they are supposed to do
  • Have a lot of stuff on memory sticks – even when your machine dies you still have them. Be sure to format the stick to work across operating systems
  • Expect to not have the time you thought you had for your talk. I normally plan for a 10 minute difference in each direction

I’ve given up on trying high-tech presentations because too much goes wrong. I’ve tried Mac/Keynote, PC/Powerpoint, HTML Slides and PDFs and still things went wrong. I started prefering to have my slides shown on a conference computer instead of mine. At least then I have someone else to blame.

My main trick is that I have my slides as PowerPoint with all the fonts I used on a memory stick. I also have them as a PDF with all animations as single slides if even that will not work out. Be prepaired for everything to fail. And if it does, deal with it swiftly and honestly.

Getting ready to be on stage

Before going on stage there are a few things to do:

  • Announce on social media where and when you are presenting and that it is soon
  • Tell your colleagues/friends at the event where you present and that people may come and talk to them right after
  • Take some time out, go to a place where people don’t pester you and go through your talk in your head
  • Take a bio break, crossing your legs on stage is not a good plan
  • Check that your oufit has no malfunctions, drink some water, make sure your voice is clear (lozenges are a good idea)
  • Take some extra time to get to the room you present. I normally tend to sit in the talk before and use the break in between presentations to set up
  • Stock up on swag/cards and other things to immediately give to people after the talk.
  • Breathe, calm down, you’re ready, you got this

DevRel stage etiquette

Congratulations you made it. You’re on stage and the show must go on. There are a lot of things not to say on stage, and I wrote a whole post on the subject some time ago . In this current context of DevRel there are a few things that apply besides the obvious ones:

  • Don’t over-promise. Your job is to get people excited, but your technical integrity is your biggest asset
  • Don’t bad-mouth the competition. Nothing good comes from that
  • Don’t leave people wondering. Start with where the slides are available and how to contact you. Explain if you will be at the event and where to chat to you
  • Turn off all your notifications on your phone and your computer. You don’t want any sensitive information to show up on screen or some prankster in the audience post something offensive
  • Have a clean setup, people shouldn’t see personal files or weirdly named folders
  • Don’t have any slides that cause controversy without your explanations. It is a very tempting rhetoric device to show something out-of-context and describe the oddity of it. The problem is these days people post a photo of your slide. People without the context but a tendency to cause drama on social media then comment on this. You don’t want to get off stage, open your phone and drown in controversy. Not worth it.
  • Make it obvious who you work for. As mentioned earlier, this can be a problem, but you are there for this reason.
  • Show that you are part of the event by mentioning other, fitting talks on subjects you mention. This is a great way to help the organisers and help other presenters
  • Don’t get distracted when things go wrong. Admit the error, move on swiftly. It is annoying to witness several attempts of a tech demo.
  • If there is a video recording, make sure it makes sense. Don’t react to audience interjections without repeating what the context was. Don’t talk about things people on the video can’t see. When I spoke at TEDx the main message was that you talk more for the recording than the people in the room. And that applies to any multi-track conference.
  • Make sure to advocate the official communication channels of the products and teams you talk about. These are great ways to collect measureable impact information about your talk.

Things that happen after your talk

Once your done, there will be a lot of immediate requests by people. So make sure you have enough energy for that. I’m almost spent right after my talks and wished there were breaks, but you won’t get them.

Other things on your plate:

  • Use social media to thank people who went to your talk and to post a link to your slides using the conference hashtag.
  • Collect immediate social media reactions for your conference report
  • Tell people if and where you will be (probably your booth) for the rest of the conference
  • Find some calm and peace to re-charge. You’ve done good, and you should sit down, have a coffee or water and something to eat. I can’t eat before my talks, so I am famished right after

How do you know you were a success?

From a DevRel point of view it is hard to measure the success of presentations. Sure, you have impressive photos of rooms full of people. You also have some very posititive tweets by attendees and influencers as immediate feedback tends to be polarised. But what did you really achieve? How did your talk help the team and your product?

This is a real problem to answer. I always feel a high when on stage and at the event but a day later I wonder if it mattered to anyone. Sometimes you get lucky. People contact you weeks after telling you how much you inspired them. Sometimes they even show what they did with the information you told them. These are magical moments and they make it all worth while.

Feedback collected by the conference is to be taken with a grain of salt. Often there is a massive polarisation. As an example, I often have to deal with “Not technical enough” and “Too technical” at the same time. Tough to use this feedback.

One trick to make it worth while for your company and measurable is to have short-URLs in your slides. The statistics on those with the date attached can give you an idea that you made a difference.

Fact is that somehow you need to make it measurable. Going to an event and presenting is a large investment. In time, in money and also in emotional efforts. It is a great feeling to be on stage. But also remember how much time and effort you put into it. Time you could have spent on more re-usable and measurable DevRel efforts.

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Developer Relations revelations: Conferences are a lot of work

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

So, today, let’s talk about conferences and attending them as a DevRel person.

Lanyards on my door

As an attendee conferences are amazing. You watch great talks, you can vote with your feet which ones to support. You can network and meet like-minded people. And – at good conferences – you have enough to eat, drink and you even might catch a cool party. It is a great way to get out of the office, be proud of your work or get inspired to do better. It is a welcome distraction from the daily grind and thus you love putting a lot of time into it.

Conferences for DevRel folk aren’t time-out – at all

As a DevRel person, conferences aren’t a distraction. They are part of your job. Whilst other people put extra effort in to enjoy them the fullest, you need to make sure you pace yourself not to burn out. Having a four hour sleep following an after-party is a lot less fun when you have to be on stage next morning or run a booth.

As a DevRel person conferences means 100% work. Of course, you might give a talk or workshop – I will cover that in the next post. You also might have booth duty. And even if that’s not the case, your job is to represent your company and to keep your eyes open for opportunities.

These could be

  • Covering the conference on social media. It is a nice thing to do for the conference organisers and it is a great idea to be part of the buzz
  • Conversations with influencers.
  • Talking to interesting company representatives to get workshop or collaboration opportunites.
  • Watching a talk by a colleague or friend to give them feedback.
  • Checking what the competiton is doing .
  • Eavesdropping on conversations and what currently makes your audience tick.
  • Taking notes and photos and collecting leads to add to your conference report
  • Talking shop with peers and competitors.
  • Shooting videos with interesting people
  • Showing demos on your computer
  • Helping people with problems with your products on their computers
  • Explaining people how to play with your systems
  • Dis-spell myths about your products or your competitors’
  • Give out swag and collect cool swag from others to add to your laptop

This all takes time, and effort, and a lot of concentration. You don’t sit back and enjoy the show – you are reporting on it and are part of it.

Here’s the thing: you get paid to be there. So you need to make it count for the people who sent you and make it measurable.

And that can be exhausting. It is especially exhausting when you don’t want to come across as pushy and on the clock, but be an attendee instead.

Loose lips cause Twitter Drama

Conferences are a chance for attendees to let their hair down and have fun with like-minded peers. Of course, the same can apply to you and it makes sense to be part of the fun crowd. But, whatever you say and how you behave is very much on the record. You’re not at an event – you are in the limelight.

Again: as a DevRel person at an event you are never off the record.

And the record spans much further than the event you are currently at. The bigger and more important your company is, the better headlines any of your mistakes make. We love to throw dirt at successful companies and people – that’s what all gossip magazines are about. And tech magazines beholden to clicks as revenue are not far from those.

A glib remark, a tasteless joke, some banter about your competition – easy to do at an event. And fun to do – everyone does it. But you aren’t everyone and you are not a stand-up comedian who succeeds with witty public outrage.

Fact is, as a person working at the event, you can not be part of indiscretions like that. It probably is even up to you to call these things out – in person, right at the event.

The reason – aside from the obvious – is that as a DevRel person of a hot company or product people repeat what you say. A lot of people are far too enthusiastic to do so. And what happens is that context gets lost. What was good natured fun at an event or a joke on your slides can turn nasty on Twitter for weeks after. You will be misquoted as attacking a competitor. You will come across as badmouthing your company. In a time where tech news outlets get away with quoting tweets quoting you as a source, that can last for years. Every time I am quoted as a “Microsoft engineer on Twitter” I get a small freak-out.

You have to watch how you behave and what you say as how you come across reflects on your company. And context does not protect you.

A classic trick interviewers love to do is an agreement trap. They trying to get you to agree with them when they say something bad or unproven about your competition. You need to be on your toes to not agree. Instead be adamant explaining that you don’t know about this and have nothing to add.

You do represent your company – for better or worse

People also love to bait you to get information that is speculation about your company. They bring up things your company has done in the past or does in departments far away from your influence.

They ask for very simple, true-ish, statements. Statements that make great soundbites. You need to be on your guard to deflect these arguments and not fall into the trap of being recorded as making assumptions. This would mean colleagues of yours will not only have to deal with accusations. They will have to deal with accusations backed up by a company representative. It is very tempting to shut aggressive people up my telling them what they want to hear. But there are consequences. As a DevRel person it is not uncommon that you have to prove the worth of your position to the company every few months. This won’t help.

You need downtime – but it is hard to come by

These things get a lot trickier when you are jetlagged, sleep-deprived, hung over, dehydrated and your head is full of a dozen things you need to cover at the event. Whilst not all these factors should ever be a thing, a mix and match is not uncommon, depending on your outreach strategy.

Be aware that as soon as you are visible, you will have people come to you and ask for your attention. This is a great thing, but it also needs moderation. You need to take breaks to stay lucent and helpful to people’s needs, and you can’t do that for a whole event. You also need a lot of patience as people are prone to asking you the same questions dozens of times at the same event.

Skipping talks

I’d love to see every talk I am also interested in at events, but I am not a conference participant – I am part of it. It also can get weird. Often I sit in a talk I am interested in, but I can’t see it. As people see me as an expert they keep asking me during the talk if I agree with the current points. Often points that are beyond my grasp or I heard for the first time. As a DevRel person you’re a source of confirmation for people. This is not the time to learn. You are better off watching the talk recording later. Unless, of course, the presenter is a someone you want to support or a competitor you need to watch.

I started to use talks as a chance to go back to my hotel room or a quiet room (if the conference offers those – PLEASE DO!). I fall flat on my face, groan a bit and maybe take a 15 minute power nap. I also do other things like answering emails that would otherwise pile up. I change the shirt that is not too comfortable after my talk or shows sweat stains. In any case, I try to do nothing at all and have a quiet room without people for a while to find my Zen again. You need to do this, too. It’s basic work practice and even factory workers have breaks defined by law – take yours.

When you skip some talks and go out you can come back in the breaks to network much more refreshed.

Creature comforts – drinks and food

It is quite tough to feed a herd of humans with things everyone is happy with and can consume. Especially without breaking the budget of your event. Catering is hard and expensive. I applaud every conference organiser that gets it done even half-arsed. I have massive respect for the people serving food and making sure everything stays in order.

That said, if you work on conferences, things get tricky. Lunchbreaks are a great opportunity to start chats and talk to people. Yet, talking whilst eating is tough. If the conference provides access to food before the mad rush, take advantage of that. Have a bit of food beforehand and work the room with a drink later on instead. That way you can talk to people having their break without covering yourself and them in crumbs.

Alcohol, of course, is a tricky subject. Know your limits, or just don’t drink. I learned that a glass of water with ice cubes and a lime works. You can carry it like a cocktail and it gets you in with the drinking crowd without all the ill effects and deflects peer pressure. But hey, up to you, just remember what I wrote earlier about being on the record.

It is in any case a great idea to try to live a tad healthier than people who come to party. I carry nuts and fruit and make sure I use the gym when I can in the evenings and the mornings. It is also a great opportunity to wipe your memory and get into the next day with a fresh start.

The conference end isn’t the end of your work

Once the conference finished, your collation job begins.

  • You collect all unused swag, pack it up and mail it back to the office (or haul it yourself)
  • You write your reports
  • You follow up with leads and type in dozens of emails from business cards
  • You send out information about your talk or workshop to the audience or the attendees.
  • You answer conference demands like your slide deck
  • You collect and sort your receipts for expense reports
  • You answer enthusiastic tweets and emails people sent you – it is not good to keep happy people waiting
  • You remind people you met about your conversations.

All this you need to do this as soon as possible, as the longer you wait, the more you forget. This means you also need to have some energy left for these task.

So, why do it?

Given all this work you may wonder why we bother covering that many events. Well, there are lots of great parts, too. The network you accumulate with peers and conference organisers is worth a lot. Anything to make it easier for you to get invited helps. It also helps your company a lot when they know about lots of different conferences to see which ones make sense to sponsor. And a chance encounter with engineers of a certain company at an event is often a great foot in the door for collaboration. Often I managed to get access to companies that way that sales and marketing people failed to do for years. The peer-to-peer IRL network of engineers and designers is a powerful access point.

In any case, I just wanted to list the needs and demands a dedicated DevRel person has at events. I hope this helps you prepare. I also hope that some people consider this when they tell you – once again – how easy your life is hanging out at events all the time.

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Developer Relations revelations: not all is glamour and fun

I spent this morning at a photoshoot. A photographer dragged me all over Berlin Mitte to take photos of me holding my phone and pretending to communicate. The reason is an essay about “Jobs of the Future” for a German finance magazine. Me, I am a “Developer Relations Person/Developer Evangelist/Developer Advocate” and this is baffling to people with “normal” jobs. I’ve done this for a long time and quite some time ago I wrote the Developer Evangelism handbook.

Don't fall in love, fall in coffee...

It is flattering to see how something that niche gets mainstream attention. It is also frightening to me. The explosion of DevRel opportunities in the last years is amazing. But often I am disappointed. The idea of companies hiring DevRel people in junior positions is odd. People with no company history or product involvement being DevRel is against everything I described.

DevRel is a great opportunity for engineers to move from delivering the product to helping it to become a bigger success. We’re not sales people and we’re not marketing. We’re communicators inside and outside the company and our main task is to make it easy for developers to do their job. That needs in-depth technical knowledge and company experience. That means dealing with the needs of marketing, management and recruiting and translating those to events and team communication. It also means – to a much larger degree – to ensure that the developer’s needs inside and outside the company are communicated in an understandable and actionable manner to the company.

What annoys me a lot more though is that by painting DevRel as a job disconnected from engineering, developers lose respect. And often people don’t get just how much stress, effort and unsatisfactory agreements working in DevRel is.

On the surface, DevRel sounds like a great job. Other people do the work, all you need to do is to present it in social media, at conferences and in blog posts. It also looks incredibly glamorous. You travel all over the world. You stay in hotels all the time. You get paid to go to conferences other people have to beg their managers to get tickets for. You hang out with higher-ups in the company. You always have the coolest new swag and inside information.

Now, I have been doing this job for quite some years now, and it is important to also explain the problems with this job. I don’t want to discourage people from pursuing this idea. But I also want to talk a bit about the things that frustrate, depress and endanger you when you work in DevRel . And I want to explain how some of these things that looks shiny and great can turn exhausting and drain a lot of energy. I’ve encountered burnout and frustration and depression and with every high comes a massive low. So, maybe this will help some of you avoid these.

Over the next few days I will cover a few of the concepts of DevRel and what dark and annoying things you should be prepared for:

  • Attending conferences
  • Presenting/Workshops
  • Traveling
  • Social Media
  • Working with your own company

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[Job] Help create the Windows version of Framer – React developer in Amsterdam

TL;DR: Framer are looking for a React developer based in Amsterdam to create the Windows version of the app with help from my team. Apply here.

Framer is only available on OSX

One of the things that annoy me the most is operating system dependence. It is frustrating to see a great new tool you want to use but it isn’t available on your platform. Not everyone can afford Apple hardware or wants to do everything in Windows or Android. I personally use several operating systems and it annoys me that I can’t use the same tool stack. Instead you need to learn different ones for each OS (Keynote/Powerpoint anyone?). It feels like the 90s.

That’s why I was happy when Framer contacted me and asked me to help them find someone to work on the Windows version of their great tool. The great news is that you’re not only going to work for a cool company. You also get to work directly with our team here to ensure that the port is going to be a great product. At Microsoft we have a dedicated team helping people to port apps. This team has deep insight into what to do and what to avoid to create an app that takes advantage of the things Windows 10 offers.

So, if you are:

  • A React Native developer who wants to build a great, well-used app for a big community
  • Have Windows experience and supporting more than Chrome/OSX in your WebView
  • Look for a full-time position in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Apply now, and we can soon bridge another support gap that that is well over-due.

This is a short time offer, Framer are looking to hire someone ASAP and bring out the Windows version within a few months. The new Framer version is close to Alpha release internally.

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What comes after senior developer?

A few weeks ago a company approached me if I’d be available to give a series of talks and Q&A for senior developers. Their question was how to deal with the problem that there seems to be an upper limit to technical careers. At one time in our career we have a decision to make if we want to keep being technical or moving into management. It sounds odd, but there is a lot of truth to it.

A gap in company hierarchies

Throughout my career I found that there is a limited amount of levels you can climb as a technical person. This sounds unfair, especially in companies that pride themselves on being technical. The earlier you are in your career, the more annoying this seems.

When we start, we love being developers. We see technology solve problems in a logical and enjoyable fashion. Much less icky, slow and error-prone as human communication. It makes us believe that you can solve everything with technology. Which is great, as this is also what excites us. People excited about their jobs work better.

On the whole we earn good money, have a high-quality work environment and feel we could do this forever. Sometimes we get too excited about developing. We don’t realise that we burn out or are being taken advantage of. I’ve seen product managers trying to make a mark by releasing a product before the deadline. They then coerce junior developers to work too much or cut corners. At the cost of endangering the quality and even the security of the product. And the mental health of the developer.

Seeing this dedication it feels weird not to have technical role models to look up to. At a certain level in the company it seems you need to stop coding and do things we don’t like to do instead.

What annoys us?

We love to complain about things at work. As developers we are quick to blame things beyond our control for failures. It can’t be the problem of the technology or our skill, right? We’re excited about what we do, and that means only good things can come out of that.

Often we see products go wrong. Most of the time because of business decisions that make no sense to us. Business decisions that interfere with our development plans. People get allocated elsewhere, budgets of exciting products get cut. Products we’d love to see go live as their technology is cool and innovative.

Meetings are plentiful, not productive and get us out of our development zone. Why should I sit in a room talk about what I do when the version control comments do the same job?

Time and allocation estimations keep being wrong. Either we’re allocated to a project that doesn’t need us, or we don’t have enough people. We run out of time when developing products and often by the time we release, the market stopped caring. Or our competitor was faster.

Whilst underestimating it ourselves, we often see other engineers burn out. There is a huge churn of people and it is tough to build teams when people keep leaving and new ones get hired. It is hard to keep up good quality in a product when the team keeps changing. It is tough to innovate when you spend a lot of time showing people the ropes. And innovation is something our market seems to be running on. It is also what excites us as developers, We want to do new, cool, things and talk about them.

We face the issue that we keep having new people but there is never enough time for training. When we read the technology news feeds there seems to be so much to look at but it is beyond our reach. Instead we spend our time re-educating joiners on how things work in our company. And it feels that we ourselves fall behind whilst our job is to be inspiring to junior developers.

What are we worried about?

As developers in the trenches and in the flow of excitement we worry about a lot of things. We find that keeping up with technologies is a full-time job. If you’re not on the bleeding edge you will only get boring work or someone will take your job. This is odd considering the amount of job offers we get and how starved for talent our market is. But we worry and we stress out about it. Younger, fresher people seem to be much quicker in grasping and using new tech as we are.

We also see coding as a fun thing and we don’t want to stop doing it. We remember that we had no respect for people who didn’t write code but use products instead. We don’t want to be those people, but it seems that to advance our careers, we need to.

Turning the tables

It is a good thing that these thing annoy us as they are an opportunity for us to turn the tables. By shifting into a role that is a technical hybrid you can battle some of these annoyances. The hierarchy gap is an indicator that there is a rift between the technical staff and management. A gap that is costly and hinders our companies from innovating and being a place where people want to work.

It is painful to see how clumsy companies are in trying to keep their techies happy. We do team building exercises, we offer share options. We pay free lunches and try to do everything to keep people in the office. We print team T-shirts and stickers and pretend that the company is a big, happy family. We pay our technical staff a lot and wonder why people are grumpy and leave.

All these things are costly and don’t have the impact our companies hope for. The reason is that they lack respect and understanding. When the basic needs of humans are met there is no point adding more creature comforts. There is no point earning more money when you have even less time outside work to enjoy it.

What gets us going is a feeling of recognition and respect. And only peers who’ve been in the same place can give that. There is no way to give a sincere compliment when you can’t even understand what the person does.

And this is where we have our sweet spot. Our companies struggle for relevance in comparison to others as much as we do with out peers. And often they lack input from us. Instead of implementing what has always been done a certain way we can bring a reality check. The market keeps changing and it is up to us to remind our companies what excites technical talent.

There may be a path already available to you – or you have to invent one to do that. In any case, your first job is to become visible to your company as someone who cares and wants things to change. This means partnering with HR, hiring and PR. It also means selling yourself to management as someone ready to change things around.

Becoming a fixer of bigger problems…

The fun thing to remember is that as a company in the technology space, everybody has similar worries. Think you are worried about falling behind? Your company is much more worried, and you are closer to the subject than the people running it.

Research what worries you, share how you keep up to date and what it means for your company. It makes sense for a company to get the gist of a new technology from someone who can verify it. A lot more sense than falling for a hype and buy a third party product or consulting on the subject.

Often we’re asked to implement something hot and cool that doesn’t make any sense. The reason was most likely some PowerPoint circulating in upper management. A presentation based on what excites the tech press and not what makes your product better. Try to be there with advice creating that PowerPoint before you have to deal with its impact.

Retention of talent is another thing every company worries about. Churn and burnout of engineers is a big issue. Try to offer solutions – things that help you and keep you here. Every engineer coming through the door is a 20,000 GBP investment. Even before they wrote their first line of code or got access to the repository. Every engineer staying at your company is a worth-while investment. Making sure you help find your company ways to keep people is a big plus for you.

Another way to shine is by bringing in new talent. It is a competitive market out there and it is hard for a company to find new engineers. As developers we’ve grown weary of terrible job offers. It is not uncommon to see demands like five year experience for a one year old technology. You can help prevent your company from such embarrassment. Work with your hiring department to draft sensible job descriptions. Even better, go to events and meetups. Look through pull requests and comments on repos to spot possible candidates.

Find ways to encourage your engineers to hire by word-of-mouth. This is is how I found my last five jobs and this is also how I made up for some income gaps. A company that pays a bonus for each hired person has employees as advocates. People we trust are more likely to be good colleagues. Better than random people you have to filter out with a good interview process. Try to make your company visible where developers are by being a great example, and you may stir interest.

Nonsensical job offers are a symptom of a general problem with internal communication. This is rampant in our market. Developers hate managers, managers don’t get developers. You can mediate. It is a tight-rope walk at times as you don’t want to come across as someone trying to please management. But it is a necessary step, and if better communication is the result, worth your time and some arguments.

External communication and marketing is another department you can help with. How often did you facepalm reading advertising by your company? Help avoiding this in the future by being a technical advisor.

Overall, this is about being an ear on the ground for your company. To non-technical people in a company navel-gazing is common. The job of marketing is to make your company’s products look good. Often this means that people get a bit too excited about your own produce. They don’t compare, they don’t even have time to look at what others are doing. This is a good chance for you to keep up with what the competition is doing and tell what it means to your company. You’ve done the research for them, and that is worth a lot.

New skills that are old skills…

The fun part about being a coder is that you don’t have to deal with people. This ends when you want to move further up. Your “soft skills” are what will allow you to stay technical and have a new role. Your technical skill is an asset, but it is also limited – even when you don’t want to admit it yet. Being a technically skilled person with good communication skills is the sweet spot to aim for. The higher you communicate upward, the less people are interested in technical details. Instead they want to see results, impact and costs.

Sales people know that. Learn from how they work, but stay true to what you talk about. Instead of selling by hushing up bad aspects, sell your technical skill to prevent mistakes. Instead of bad-mouthing your companies’ competitors, be in the know about them and show your company what to look out for. We all sell something. Why not sell what excites you and your experience instead of having to patch what others messed up?

Flexibility is the key

My career took off when I stopped caring where and when I worked. Being open to travel is important. Most communication problems in companies are based on time difference. Be the one that is available when others are. Try to be open to any technology and listen to their benefits and problems. You will not live and die in one stack.

Things not to worry about…

You are not betraying the brotherhood of coders by moving up. They have no wrath worth worrying about. You will be asked constantly if you still code. But it is natural that you will lose interest in being on the bleeding edge all the time and doing the work. We all slow down and want a life besides chasing the cool. You will also wonder why the hell everything is so complex now when it used to be so simple. Even when you don’t code all the time, you won’t be bored. Consider this a chance to fix what always annoyed you.

You will be praised for things you haven’t done. Much like you are praised as a developer for things you don’t consider good. People can’t measure what is good, they see what you do and are impressed. Take the praise but make sure to share it with those who did the work.

Realities to prepare for…

Let’s re-visit the worries we have as developers and give them a reality check.

Keeping up with technologies is a full-time job. It is! So find a way to convince your company and managers that you are good at doing that. Remember that you need to free up a lot of time on your schedule to do that. This means not doing all the work but getting better at delegating. It also means giving more conservative estimates about your deliveries and deadlines. This can be tough to do. Especially when you made the mistake of establishing yourself as the person who can get things done – no matter what.

You can only understand a technology when you use it. True. But you will never have enough time to do that. Triage the evaluation and using of technology to your team. This is a great way to empower people and allow them to work on their communication skills. It is also a good way to keep your team interested. Allowing a developer to stop ploughing through a bug list and evaluate something new and shiny instead feels good. If you rotate these assignments you don’t cause jealousy or show favoritism. You don’t want your team to feel bored or underappreciated whilst others do cool stuff. So let them do cool stuff and keep buffers in your allocation planning that allows for it.

Younger, fresher people seem to be much quicker in taking on new tech as we are. True. So allow them to do that and be a good leader for them. You will get slower the older you get. You will be hindered by real life demands. The more experienced you are, the more likely you are to discard new things and stick to what you know. Let others inspire you. You might not be up to going all-in with some experimental technology. A younger person reporting to you can be and you can learn something by guiding them.

Coding is fun. We don’t want to stop doing that. True. You should never stop coding. But isn’t it time you earned the right to code what and when you want to? Things you know well are a great opportunity for a junior developer to learn. Don’t take that away from them. We shouldn’t be bored by our code. This leads to stagnation and is the antithesis of innovation.

We remember that we had no respect for people who didn’t write code but use products instead. I sincerely hope you grew up. Software Development is a service. We build things to empower people to achieve goals. The more complex these systems are, the more we move away from coding. There is no medal for being hard-core. First to market is a thing.

Other realities you have to face are things you may not be familiar with or you are in denial about. These things happen though – all the time.

There will be a time when you are too senior to be assigned work. You might as well take action on that. Make sure that you have junior engineers you trust to do that work and be the firewall for them. When you are too senior to do a job, make sure you help the product owners find the right people in your team. Your job is to take the demands from top down and translate them to manageable chunks for your team.

Anything you do can get canned at the last moment for reasons beyond your control. Take it in stride and learn from the mistakes you made. Be stringent in noting down what went wrong. That way you don’t repeat the mistakes.

You are diving into the deep end of corporate politics. Who you know, and who you impress is often more important than what you know. Networking internally is a big thing. Concentrate on corporate levels, not on individuals. People leave.

Things to start with…

I hope you found some things that resonated with you here. There are many ways to get into a place where you can stay technical and move up in your company hierarchy. Most are fresh though and companies need to change age-old approaches to the topic. It is exciting to be part of that change though.

A few things that helped me get to this place are kind of obvious:

Consider contributing to open source. Either by participating in projects or open sourcing your own products. Open source is by default a communication channel. It helps you find talent as people join your company knowing your product. It helps your company become more visible to developers. And it gives your team a sense of achievement. Even when some internal product goes pear-shaped, there is something out there. Even when people leave the company, they have something to take with them. Contribution to open source is portable. You can show the outside world your skills – no matter who pays your wage.

Look for events and meetups to attend. Instead of taking your team to the bowling alley or an escape room to do team bonding, why not attend an event? You learn something, you can talk to people about your work and you get out together. Many events also offer jam sessions or B-Track events which are a great opportunity to submit a talk. Of course, you can also host a meetup or guest presenters at your office.

Foster an internal culture of communication. When you get people to attend events on company time, ask for them to present about the event in the office later. This helps with a few things. It means you know they went there and paid attention. It means others who couldn’t go get the information. And it means your team already gets used to presenting to a group which is important later in meetings. Often technical people know solutions, but don’t speak up in meetings as they don’t see the point. The more we get used to it, the more we embrace the idea that our points only get rewarded when we tell people about them. There are many ways to foster communication and some are a lot of fun to do. Like lightning talks about solved issues in products or even something as silly as Powerpoint Karaoke.

Aim beyond the finish line

The main thing to remember as a senior developer struggling with having no role to aim for is to aim beyond that role. Your company invested a lot in you and relies on your judgement when it comes to technical delivery. It also relies on you to lead a team and keep them happy. You also deserve to be happy and to make that happen you can’t keep things as they are.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as technical people is to make ourselves irreplaceable. We put a lot of effort into our technical products and it is hard to let go. Often we stay in a position even after all the joy went out of it and we don’t believe in the company any longer. Because we want to finish that project and see it go out of the door.

The seemingly sad fact of the matter is that nobody is irreplaceable. And that project the company keep stalling on isn’t going anywhere. And if you left to pursue other things not everything will go to pot, either. The main step to get ahead in your career is to understand that. You are replaceable and you have to take an active role in it. Hire people that are technically better and more interested in new tech than you are. Don’t be afraid of them moving into your role. Instead support them and find worthy replacements. Change in companies is a given, you can be part of those driving it or worry about how it will affect you. I’ve always rolled with the punches and it served me well. Hopefully you can do the same.

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Developer Evangelism interview on news.com.au

This morning news.com.au ran a segment about new job titles based on an interview with me a few weeks ago. In the interview about developer evangelism I answered a few questions and – more importantly – covered the difference between sales and developer relations. Here are my full answers to their questions:

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In layman’s terms, how would you describe your job?

A developer evangelist (or developer advocate which is a term many prefer now) is an expert who helps developers use the products of a company and technical people in the company to get the time and support to write excellent products. The job is a communicator role between the technical experts of a company, the outside world, but also different departments of a company. Working in tech is a taxing job although it doesn’t look that way. A lot of people have demands but are not interested in understanding what you do – they just want the work done. The job of the developer evangelist is to bridge that gap. By creating learning materials, presentations and help with communication in between departments. Developers are excellent at solving technical problems and building great software. But many have neither the time nor the drive to communicate their efforts well to others. This is what we do.

Would it be fair to say you work as a sort of salesman for companies to encourage other people to purchase things from the company? Or purchase apps for example?

No, not at all. This is the job of a sales department and their main goal is to artificially create demand for a product. As a developer evangelist you help the product on a technical level. You create example projects using the product. You collect and collate outside feedback, triage it and then bring it to the busy technical team. You help people with technical issues. You create demand in the technical community by talking about the product and showing how it makes the life of developers easier.
If you do a classic sales pitch in the form of “you don’t need to understand this, our product magically fixes all your problems” you’re dead as a developer relations person. You need to have the technical knowledge and properly understand how the product works, not simply sell it. Of course, we’re all creating demand and interest, so in a way we are sales people. But what we sell is knowledge about the inner workings of the product to the outside. You sell your company as a place using cool tech to other developers. We sell outside interest back to the company helping it to priotitise product roadmaps. Good DevRel work doesn’t necessarily result in more product sales. Instead it helps with hiring new talent and ensure people in the company are happy. A company with a fixed product does not need a developer evangelist. When your product offers more granular access to its features using for example an Application Programming Interface (API) then you should consider bringing this role up.

As a comparison, consider a car company. The sales people are there to sell cars – customers don’t need to know the internals. A devrel person would be the one explaining mechanics how to maintain the engine. The person should present at conferences why your cars have great technology and are good for the environment. And explain that your company is much more than just a maker of cars. We create interest and explain how things work so people from the outside can contribute. We don’t sell products.

On your Linkedin you say, ‘I like to take complex technical things and translate them to various audiences in an understandable format’. Is that for people working for companies like Microsoft? Or the general public?

That depends on the event or publication I am asked to reach out to. I’ve explained tech and products of my former and current companies internally to our own people of other departments. I explained them to outside developers working for other, similar companies. I worked withthe open source community as a whole, designers, product managers, project managers and at one time also to people working in the unemployment office. That’s the “various audiences” bit in there.

The general public is less interested in the inner workings of products. It makes more sense to give this communication channel to marketing. However, a good developer evangelist works very closely with sales and marketing to make sure that your company advertisements and press releases don’t overpromise or make it impossible for your developers to deliver in time.

The job of a developer evangelist is to make technical issues easier to understand. This also means to help your company to communicate to the general public without dazzling them with buzzwords.

You don’t only to explain the how but also the why. And the why differs from audience to audience and needs different explanation materials. This could be a very well documented and explained piece of code, an exciting use case and demo app or a presentation. It boils down to being a good communicator and feel empathy with the audience. Far too many technical documentation assumes a perfect audience and thus fails to spark interest. Other information materials show a shiny best scenario but never explain what to do when things go wrong. As a devrel person you need to find a good middle ground.

How does one go about becoming a developer evangelist?

The perfect scenario is to move an interested developer of the product into the role. You need to know the products and technologies inside and out to be a good developer evangelist. People in technology have had their fair share of overpromise and slick sales people telling us things work that do – in fact – not. So you need to have the right “street credibility” or you’re just a sales person that tries to reach a very hostile audience. Personally I was in a lead developer role in a company when I transitioned. I didn’t see any more ways to get promoted on a technical level without moving into management. So I proposed the role of developer evangelist to help the company to improve our internal and external communication. I was lucky to find a sympathetic ear as this is a big issue for a lot of companies.

To start, you need to know what you want to talk about. You can’t only be a good presenter or writer, you also need to know the technical details and know what the market as a whole is doing. For developers or technical project managers who consider a role in DevRel it is a great idea to do a competitive analysis and find out what gets developers excited and how it relates to your company. Then you can start selling the idea of this role to your company. One thing to remember is that only your own excitement sells. If you don’t care about the technology you are supposed to promote or you don’t understand it, you will fail.

Do you developer evangelists work in every tech company? For example, is there a developer evangelist attempting to sell Candy Crush to developers or people looking for the next app to play?

I am pretty shocked how far this has grown. When I wrote the developer evangelism handbook there were only a few companies that had devrel departments. Now almost every technical startup has them.

However, the example of Candy Crush or next app to play is nothing a developer evangelist should do – at all.

King, the company behind Candy Crush most likely has developer evangelists. Instead of telling people about their new games they talk to game developers how to use their analytics, scoring mechanism and other internal features of games. Developer Relations (DevRel) is a hot topic now and a lot of people try to jump on the bandwagon. It kind of washes out the idea of what it is meant to do – improve communication between technical and non-technical people. Developers are a sought after community. They are early adopters and often they are ahead of the next wave of change in our markets. It is tough to hire talent, and it is even harder to retain them. A functioning DevRel department is there to make the technical people in your company be understood and proud of what they are doing. It is not about going to events and giving out T-Shirts.

Do you believe developer evangelists are just one of the many jobs people need to embrace/learn to do in the 21st century. If so, how should people start learning?

It is for sure one of the newer jobs and one that still needs proper definition. However, I would disagree that people should start as developer evangelists. It is a role technical people should transition into once they know your company’s products and goals. That doesn’t mean though that the skillset needed for it isn’t a thing everybody should be learning. We’re at a stage where technology evolves faster than humans. In the very near future it will not be about who can program, but who can use intelligent products that work for us in a sensible manner. Knowing what is happening at the bleeding edge of technology and finding simple ways to explain it is a skill that will become more and more important. It is especially important to make a conscious decision to avoid the drama and hype about technology. Right now, the tech world is getting a bad reputation of being horrible people who only look out for themselves and don’t care about what our products do to people. It is a good time to disprove this impression.

The beauty of our time is that the internet is a great place to learn all kind of things. You can use online courses to try out ideas and technologies for yourself and play with them. There is no certificate for developer evangelism. We’re still at a very early stage. You can use that as an opportunity.

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