The Value of Developer Relations
Every community professional has had the challenge of explaining their role and job duties to others within their organization. For many of us, that means always being prepared with qualitative and quantitative anecdotes that ladder up to our company’s mission and goals. In this episode of Community Signal, Mary Thengvall explains the importance of tailoring the message of what we do to the person we’re speaking with, whether it’s our boss, the CEO, or CFO.
If you’re in need of tips or new inspiration on how to prove the value of your work to your organization (and yourself!), Patrick and Mary provide an important reminder that you are your own best advocate and that means taking initiative to know and explain your team’s contributions.
Mary shares the story of her job path through community, and how a one-year experiment at O’Reilly Media led to a career in developer relations.
Patrick and Mary also discuss:
- Mary’s thinking around “time-to-value”
- The worst public firing in community history
- The different causes of burnout for community professionals
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsors: Higher Logic and Structure3C.
“About three years into my eight-year stint [at O’Reilly Media], I started asking a lot of questions [about] the topics people want to hear about. How do we know this is the right topic to pursue? How do we know these are the topics people want to know about at conferences or books or webinars and all those types of things? Being the early twenties person that I was, I fully embodied the squeaky wheel and kept asking those questions and kept trying to figure out, okay … our reviewers are saying those are great, but how do we know it’s actually what our community wants?” –@mary_grace
“It’s difficult anytime you get rid of a community team. To me the biggest thing [about O’Reilly Media firing two community managers at a conference was] that there wasn’t an understanding of the value that the team brought to the table, and when you don’t understand that value a lot of what you can see is you attend all these events and you go to all these places. We spend a lot of money on all those sponsorships and we don’t have a direct way to say, ‘That adds value to the company because of X, Y, Z.'” –@mary_grace
“I think it comes back to if the stakeholders don’t understand the value that [community] brings, and that might be their fault, that might be the community team’s fault, that might be a combination of things. If they don’t actually understand the value that you bring to the table as a community person, then they’re going to make the best business decision that they can make and the impact that it’s going to have on the community isn’t even going to be a thought in their minds, because they don’t understand that there’s value in the impact that that team has on the community.” –@mary_grace
“Time-to-value is this interesting concept of how long does it take someone to hit that first milestone after they’ve signed up for your product. … Shortening that span of time makes it easier for your customer, it makes it easier for the community member, makes it easier and gives you that much more potential for that individual signing up for a full-blown account, because they can see just how easy it is and just how good of an experience they can have on your platform.” –@mary_grace
“Having a manager who not only understands the value of developer relations but can articulate that is key, I believe. Otherwise, we land in these situations where the team is not only trying to prove their value to the higher ups and stakeholders but they’re also trying to prove their value to their manager. That’s a really, really difficult situation for anyone to be in. … If you have someone who understands the value of DevRel and can keep you going on that straight and narrow, you don’t get pulled into handling the latest 10 support tickets or being the technical support on the sales call or helping marketing with the rebranding of the website.” –@mary_grace
About Mary Thengvall
Mary Thengvall is a connector of people at heart, both personally and professionally. She loves digging into the strategy of how to build and foster developer communities and has been doing so for over 10 years. In addition to her work, Mary is known for being “the one with the dog,” thanks to her ever-present medical alert service dog Ember. She’s the author of She’s the author of The Business Value of Developer Relations, coming later this year from Apress.
Mary is founder and co-host of Community Pulse,, a podcast for developer relations professionals. She curates DevRel Weekly, a weekly newsletter featuring a curated list of articles, job postings, and events. Mary is the founding member and “Benevolent Queen” of the Evangelist Collective Slack team, and a member of Prompt, a non-profit that encourages people to openly talk about mental illness in tech. She speaks at various conferences and events about building and fostering technical communities as well as how to prevent burnout.
- Sponsor: Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Mary Thengvall’s website
- Mary on Twitter
- The Business Value of Developer Relations
- Community Pulse, a podcast for Developer Relations professionals
- DevRel Weekly, a weekly newsletter featuring articles and job postings
- The Evangelist Collective Slack
- Prompt, a non-profit that encourages a dialogue around mental illness in tech
- O’Reilly Media, where Mary began her career in developer relations
- Laura Baldwin, president of O’Reilly Media
- Ignite, a series of speedy presentations
- Chef Software
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers, and Structure3C, advanced community strategy for large organizations. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. On this episode, we’re talking developer relations with Mary Thengvall including the challenges of measurement, the pressure from the top, and what to do about the burnout that can result.
If you are a regular listener of our program please consider supporting it on Patreon at communitysignal.com/innercircle. You’ll join great people like Carol Benovic-Bradley, Serena Snoad, and Luke Zimmer. Thanks to all our Patreon backers.
Mary Thengvall is a connector of people at heart, both personally and professionally. She loves digging into the strategy of how to build and foster developer communities and has been doing so for over 10 years. In addition to her work, Mary is known for being “the one with the dog,” thanks to her ever-present medical alert service dog Ember. She’s the author of The Business Value of Developer Relations coming later this year from Apress. Mary is founder and co-host of Community Pulse, a podcast for Developer Relations professionals. She curates DevRel Weekly, a weekly newsletter featuring a curated list of articles, job postings, and events every Thursday. Mary is the founding member and “Benevolent Queen” of the Evangelist Collective Slack team and a member of Prompt, a non-profit that encourages people to openly talk about mental illness in tech. She speaks at various conferences and events about building and fostering technical communities as well as how to prevent burnout. Mary, welcome to the show.
[00:01:39] Mary Thengvall: Thanks. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:01:42] Patrick: It’s great to have you on. To get started I’d like you to tell me your developer relations origin story that led to you being pulled into the office of the president of O’Reilly Media.
[00:01:52] Mary: [laughs] Sure, I actually have a journalism background. I love telling stories. I love listening to stories. I have long been fascinated by feature writing and things like that. I had the fantastic timing of getting about halfway through my journalism degree and all of the newspapers deciding they were going to start letting go of their writing staff because people weren’t reading print newspaper anymore.
I had a sit-down with my dad who basically said, “If you want to keep doing this that’s fine but here’s some of my suggestions of things that you should do and if you don’t want to keep doing this then we need to figure out another plan for your college career.”
I wound up that summer having an internship with O’Reilly Media, who is a big tech media publisher and had a fantastic time working with their PR department, talking to some of the folks who’ve been writing their books and working on press releases and all of that. That turned into a full-time job after college which was amazing. About three years into my eight-year stint there I started asking a lot of questions around how do we know these are the topics people want to be hearing about. How do we know this is the right topic to pursue? How do we know these are the topics people want to know about at conferences or books or webinars and all those types of things.
Being the early twenties person that I was, I fully embodied the squeaky wheel [laughs] and kept asking those questions and kept trying to figure out, okay that’s fine our reviewers are saying those are great but how do we know it’s actually what our community wants? How do we know it’s what the developers are looking for? How do we know that that’s the next best thing and not just something that our editor is really excited about?
Laura Baldwin, who’s the president of O’Reilly, pulled me into her office one day and basically said “Look, you keep asking these questions, they are valid questions. You have a good relationship with, what we call, the velocity community, the DevOps and web performance community. Why don’t you take that on and figure out the answers to some of these questions and see what happens? Here’s your budget, you’ve got a year. You’re reporting to me now and report back along the way.”
I had a little bit of community management experience as far as organizing things for the Ignite nights and videos and get-togethers that were happening all over the world, the five-minute talks that were happening from the stage. I didn’t really fully understand what is community management and is that a thing and is there a career there? This was about a decade ago at this point. It was an exciting year full of a lot of really cool opportunities and meeting a lot of really awesome people and then bringing back that information, trends that I was seeing, patterns that I seeing, people that I met all sorts of things, back to my editors, back to the conference chairs, back to Laura at O’Reilly.
[00:04:39] Patrick: You mention you had 12 months, what was sort of the mandate for that 12 months? What were you trying to show?
[00:04:44] Mary: A lot of it was just getting out there and getting to know our community better. Figuring out who the thought leaders were, figuring out what questions they were asking, what things they were really excited about. A lot of what I reported back honestly was trip reports that I would bring back from those trips that I took to the east coast or to Austin or to Portland and saying, “Here’s the list of people that I met, here’s the list of topics that they’re talking about, here is the interesting conversations that I had.” Then as I started curating more of those trip reports I could go back and say, “Okay, this topic came up three times in the last five trips, maybe this is an area we should be looking in next.” It was a lot of gathering feedback, it was a lot of learning, it was a lot of even just figuring out what the questions were to ask to get to know that DevOps and webs performance community better.
[00:05:41] Patrick: At the end of that 12 months, what happened?
[00:05:43] Mary: That’s a complicated question and you can decide whether or not we want to use this or not. That’s a complicated question because I actually shattered my wrist 11 months into that 12 months stint. Got in a car accident, got t-boned by another car, shattered my wrist and was out on medical leave for three months. I actually wasn’t a part of those conversations that were happening at the end of that 12 months. When I came back things had shifted around, they have moved an actual official community department under marketing.
I stayed there for awhile longer working with the two new folks that we brought on board then trying to figure out, “What do we do going forward? How does this work? What does this look like for each of the different divisions that we are looking into in various technical areas?” Then got a job offer from Chef Software, which was a company and a community that I’d grown to love while digging into the DevOps area and the DevOps community and that was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
[00:06:41] Patrick: It sounds like there’s a little mystery. [chuckles] After that there is 11 and then there’s a three-month gap and there’s a mystery of what happened while you were there that was never fully explained and thankfully you found a new opportunity. Sticking with O’Reilly for a second because I wanted to get a perspective on something. When I was thinking about this story, your story at O’Reilly, I was reminded of the time that O’Reilly fired two community managers, Josh Simmons and Jason Yee in the middle of a conference. Which was just mind-boggling to me at the time and by the time you are more than two years gone from O’Reilly Media.
I know you know that story, I think you know one or both of them. What was your take on that story?
[00:07:19] Mary: I was actually at that conference-
[00:07:20] Patrick: On the ground.
[00:07:22] Mary: -and I spoke to Jason probably within 10 minutes of him getting the news. That was hard, it was really, really hard. It was a difficult decision for them, from what I understand, it was also a difficult decision to do that at that conference. Jason was a remote employee and so there was the philosophy of, “Let’s tell him in person,” but it was also at the conference which made it more difficult. That was also right in the middle of them taking over Safari Books. I know there was a lot of shifting there. It’s a hard call to make.
It’s difficult anytime you get rid of a community team. To me the biggest thing was, and this is something that we speak to a lot, with a lot of different community teams that are dissolved, there wasn’t an understanding of the value that the team brought to the table, and when you don’t understand that value a lot of what you can see is you attend all these events and you got all these places. We spend a lot of money on all those sponsorships and we don’t have a direct way to say, “That adds value to the company because of X, Y, Z.”
[00:08:30] Patrick: Let’s take a moment to talk about our great sponsor, Structure3C.
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I remember that story and it’s still on my mind in a way I think about that when I think about O’Reilly, when I think about community managers that get fired. People get fired all the time and it happens in any job function whether it’s marketing or HR, accounting, whatever it is. I could not believe that they did it at the conference. I understand the remote employee thing. I just think how terrible is that of a decision. It’s awful for the people to get fired but just for the company, it’s not a company that just burned out their funding. I would say I think it’s awful when people, startup wise, burn out of their funding and then they just poof and gone. You need some segue to say, “Okay, well two weeks we’re dead, let’s take care of the people and move on.”
This is a company that can do better and they didn’t. I just as a community person who spends time in the community all day, every day, I just think of you gathering the community and you’re putting the person who the community most well knows in a circle. Then you go up in front of them and I’m not laughing because it’s good, I’m laughing because it’s ridiculous. Just the idea that this is the time you fire like you can’t say stay here an extra day, stay here two days let’s have a meeting, let’s have a call, let’s do something. Just the amount of kind of carelessness that goes into that it just blew my mind at the time. I understand there’s reasons and excuses for things. My goodness, it was like wow. Wow, wow, wow I could not believe it, it was surreal and I still have not heard of a story like that to this day and don’t recall hearing one before that and I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s a unique story.
[00:10:37] Mary: Yes, definitely. No, I agree. My only guess is that because the higher-ups weren’t aware of the value that the team brought. They didn’t even have a reason to think through what’s the potential implication of doing this at the conference. If they did understand the value that they brought then they would go, “Doing it at the conference is a really bad idea,” because that’s a really good way to get this whole community stirred it up and shaken up and really mad at the company who made that decision.
I think it comes back to if the stakeholders don’t understand the value that you bring and that might be their fault, that might be the community team’s fault, that might be a combination of things. If they don’t actually understand the value that you bring to the table as a community person, then they’re going to make the best business decision that they can make and the impact that it’s going to have on the community isn’t even going to be a thought in their minds, because they don’t understand that there’s value in the impact that that team has on the community.
[00:11:41] Patrick: Let’s talk about that because it’s super relevant to the story. At the time, Jason, he tweeted that O’Reilly always wanted metrics to prove they were doing a good job. There are metrics as a community pro or developer relations person as we might see them. Of course, then there are metrics as the CFO might see them and when it comes time to allocate the budget. Looking at it from developer relations specifically, and I know there’s a lot of tie-in relation between community and devrel, but looking ahead from that angle specifically. What’s the answer to that question? What’s the answer to the need for metrics, the desire, the call, the constant beating on the jumps for metrics for you?
[00:12:18] Mary: The need for a way to show that a team is contributing value back to the company, I absolutely agree with. Marketing is always responsible to make sure they’re driving the funnel for sales. Product is responsible to make sure that new things are coming out and they’re keeping engineering on task. Engineering is responsible to release new features and to get that work done. You have to prove that you’re driving the company forward somehow so that I don’t have a problem with.
The problem is the metrics that are easy for people to go to, are what I like to call vanity metrics, tends to be the things that we default to. Stuff like well, how many followers do you have on Twitter? How many stars do we have on a GitHub repo? How many people were at your talk last week? All of those types of things that at the end of the day I might have given a Keynote presentation to 60,000 people at AWS, but what does it matter if 45,000, 55,000 of those people were on their laptops and weren’t paying any bit of attention to my talk.
You can track those types of numbers all day long. I don’t believe they’ll do you much good. I tend to think the numbers that are the engagement metrics will always be more effective, always be more productive. Those can look different for every company. For some companies that might be how active are our forums? How active is the community in our forums? It might be how many people are actively watching a GitHub repo and they get updates every time we send out an update? How many call requests do we have again to GitHub repo? Where it’s people that are actively contributing code back to our latest open source feature that we release, things like that.
I think part of that boils down to, and this is the same with any community work, it depends on the goals of the company. If the overarching goals of the devrel, of the community teams don’t point back to the main overarching goal that the company has at that time. You’re going to have a hard time convincing the stakeholders the whoever is involved that the work that you are doing is effective and valuable because they won’t be able to trace it back to, “Our goal is to get more customers on-boarded.” or “Our goal is to increase how happy our customers are with our product.”, or anything like that. I think making sure that that’s your touch point. Does everything that we do contribute back to that main overarching company goal? If you can say yes to that then that’s where the storytelling piece of developer relations and community building comes in. Where you go, “Here’s how we frame what we’re doing to the CEO. Here’s how we frame what we’re doing to the CTO here’s how we frame we’re doing at CMO. Not telling stories as in telling white lies but framing that information, framing that content, framing those metrics in ways that makes sense to those business individuals from their business context.
[00:15:16] Patrick: Yes, makes sense. Can you give me a specific example, make up a company based on your experience, whatever it is. Give me a fictional product and a fictional developer community. For example, you could say you’ve got a company that they make this platform, this app, this thing and it’s not open source. It’s more that you want people to take it and make it and make something with it. Then because it isn’t open source maybe they’re not as active co-contributors. Maybe they are companies that work at the high-end enterprise and their people make this that plug into the APIs or plug into that and then they just are successful companies that use the platform. Maybe their uses they might ask a question in the forums once in a while, they might go to an event if it’s enterprise [chuckles] those are some expensive events out there where those deals are made.
Maybe they just pop into the documentation or they pop into the forums once a day or they pop into the person event or maybe they call even, who knows. There is a lot of money at stake, they are making things, they are shipping, they are doing great, they are not in the forums all the time. If you want to use that as an example, go for it. What would you do to tackle that one? How do you communicate those different value points, what do you look for?
[00:16:26] Mary: Absolutely. I actually love that example because I’ve in my consulting spoken with several companies who have that exact scenario where they say “Hey we make it really easy for developers to do X and all they have to do is install this one line of code and then they never have to touch our product again,” and then they go “Join our community” and you kind of go “But why?” What’s the sell for me to join your community you are actually undercutting your sales by saying you only have to do this one thing but join our community, there is a disconnect there?
I think two things. I think the first thing is not all developer relations has to be community building in the sense of customer community building. I think that goes for community building as a whole. You aren’t always going to have a scenario where you need to foster a group of people who are your top contributors or your top content contributors or whatever you are thinking of, top forum people kind of a deal. You don’t always need that type of contributor community but expanding your community to everyone who could potentially be a customer of yours allows you to hear there feedback, allows you to figure out what problems that they are looking at that you might be able to solve but you don’t currently have a feature that solves that problem. It lets you do a lot of the stuff that I was doing when I was back at O’Reilly.
You’re talking to people about whats new, whats interesting, what are you hearing about and then parsing that information an going, okay based on this three new things that people are talking about in the DevOps space, I can tell that accessibility is going to be a really big thing in a few years and if we don’t start addressing that topic then we are behind the times already. This was back in 2010, let’s say. It’s not a huge deal right now but they are a few top people that are starting to talk about it and starting to work on it, web accessibility, having alt tags for images, as well conference accessibility for people who have disabilities and things like that.
You have the ability to stay ahead of the curve a little bit more. Also, you wind up creating a community of people who aren’t necessarily all your customers but who all view your company with a really, really good impression and in a good light. They suddenly know you care very deeply about the problems that they’re facing and issues that they run into on a day to day basis and they know that you want to make their lives easier. Based on that they go “Cool, Patrick works for this really cool company that really has the best interest of all developers at heart. If I ever actually have a situation where I need a product that solves that problem, Patrick’s company is the first that I’m going to go to because I know that that’s their philosophy and I know that that’s where they are coming from.”
[00:19:22] Patrick: I want to pause here to tell you about our great sponsor, Higher Logic.
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When I hear that I think of two things. One is you have the anecdotal, the idea that as stories are found as you get a story say from the accessibility example you have a situation where maybe that becomes something that you’re known for, as you sort of just alluded to or just come out right and said. If that generates this amount of interest or this press or this exposure, then you can make the case that it started with these conversations that you had as that person, developer, relations community, whatever person before the company was really serious or thinking about those things so you go back and say, “Okay, we saw this three years ago and so now that’s why you should trust us in a very futuristic way, because we’re looking at what’s coming next.”
Then non-anecdotal, the hardcore stuff, fixed data. Which is to say that if you do attract the community of people who are not all your customer at a given time through a pretty simple merging of information. Some people use surveys, where’d you come from. Some people would just look at the email address and say, “Okay, this email address joined our community before they became a customer and so we know that that person was in the forums, at our event, signed up for the mailing list-“, whatever, “-on that date. Later, they gave us $200,000.” Then we can tie it together as the first point of contact. When we were talking pre-show you mentioned multi-attribution modeling, which is something we’ve talked about here on the show, a unicorn if you will, but if you can get any attribution for that sale, for that customer, that’s one of the ways that you can do it. I guess, just as much as any community job, hypervigilance of recognizing the value you create and documenting that is pivotal, is what I take away from that story.
[00:21:37] Mary: Right. I’ve worked at companies in the past where one portion of a day out of my week every week– I don’t know how to phrase that correctly.
[00:21:45] Patrick: A chunk of your time.
[00:21:46] Mary: A small portion of my week every week was going through the emails that came through from sales every time we closed a new deal because I recognized that, hey, I might have talked to Annie at such-and-such a conference and she works for this company and we sparked that conversation and sparked that interest. She never would have been someone that sales would have followed up with, but if her product manager went back to the engineering team and said, “Hey, what do you all think of this?” Annie spoke up and said, “They’re awesome, I’ve talked to them at this conference.” Annie’s never going to be mentioned on our side of things. Her name is never get show up in Salesforce. Her information is probably never going to be on our multi-tracking attribution software, but if I can recognize, I know Annie works for this company, we just signed this company. I need to make a note mentally as well as in Salesforce that, “Hey, we talked to her at this event,” and frame it in the best way possible, not in a, “I want to take the glory for this sale but I’m so glad that that worked. I’m so glad we got the conversation started.” Maybe there’s a record of your conversation with her back in Salesforce from–
You scanned her badge or something. Maybe it goes back to the trip report that I was referring to earlier and I mentioned her in passing in the trip report and I can go back to that and link to my Google Drive or Paper doc that has my trip report in it and say, “This is so cool. Here’s our official first touch point of contact with someone from that company,” and continue to show your value in that way. Again, not in a grabby, “I want the glory for that sale,” but making sure that people are aware that you don’t always see those first touch moments because they’re not always on the website where someone’s actually signing up to download a paper.
[00:23:35] Patrick: I mean, it’s tough because it’s a stereotype I think of community professionals right now to say that sort of thing like, “I don’t want to be grabby” or, “I don’t want the credit.” You have to go out and grab it, you have to get something, grab a piece of it because if you don’t represent yourself no one else will. One other thing I took from that I think is a really great example is going out and getting it because no one’s going to do that for you. If you don’t review the emails yourself and cross-reference that information and say, “Okay, you know what? I did talk to that person pre-sales, we had this conversation. I pointed them in this direction and now they’re a customer.”
If you don’t do that, no one else is going to. No one’s going to spend the time for you. It’s a great example of something, a proactive way to insert yourself into the conversation is just to say, “Hey, I want to get the sales emails. I want to know who the new customers are.” They’re not going to give it to you probably without you asking and they’re not sure not going to read through it and see if you should get credit. Just by inserting yourself in there, it’s such a great tip to put in that time, to make that time as you said a portion of your day every week, it’s just a great thing to do. I mean, it’s something that everyone should think about, think about doing is just the idea that, “Okay, maybe there’s a disconnect in our data from sales from acquisition, from whatever but maybe they’ll share the info.” If they share the info, I’ll do the legwork. I’ll do the work to prove my value. That’s an awesome, awesome example.
[00:24:57] Mary: One extra thing to add to that, having that information that here’s all of our new customers coming in helps me know also maybe I didn’t have a pre-sales conversation with that person but I’m in enough meetups or in enough conversations with folks online that something will trigger a memory on Twitter and I’ll go, hang on I think they are new customer of ours, and being able to go back to my email and doing a quick search for that company name and go, oh, they totally are. “Hey, so-and-so.” Send them a DM, welcome them to the community or they introduce themselves at the meetup, “Oh, that’s awesome. Hey, I think you actually use our API now, right?”
It makes for a conversation starter. It makes for a point of reference and it both internally and externally points you out as someone who is paying attention to what’s going on in your company, which means you’re knowledgeable about what’s going on. Which means you’re that much more likely to be included in relevant conversations as well because it’s obvious that you’re paying attention and spending the time to do those things and putting in the extra effort to do that in ways that a lot of people don’t.
[00:26:01] Patrick: One last thing on metrics. Before the show, I was asking for examples, as I often do. As I drill down with guests and say more, more. You mentioned time to value, which was not a phrase that I had heard before. I wanted to ask you to give the relatively quick version of what’s time to value.
[00:26:19] Mary: Sure. Time to value is this interesting concept of how long does it take someone to hit that first milestone after they’ve signed up for our product and that might be a free version, that might be a paid version. When I worked at Chef, we called it time to delight because we wanted to delight our customers. I know a lot of companies who will think of it in a, what’s the first time that someone hits our API and sends an API call out. For SparkPost, where I was at previously as well, it was when’s the first email that they send.
Shortening that span of time makes it easier for your customer, it makes it easier for the community member, makes it easier and gives you that much more potential for that individual signing up for a full-blown account, because they can see just how easy it is and just how welcoming, just how good of an experience they can have on your platform.
This is one of those interesting things that pulls in products, pulls in engineering, pulls in marketing, pulls in support. Whatever the devrel team can do, whatever the community team can do to shorten that time to value. Whether that’s improving the documentation. Whether that’s working with marketing on wording for the developer website. Whether that’s building up good tools that help people get up and running if they’re using a different language than your platform supports. All of those types of things, getting started guides, everything else.
It’s a lot of developer experience and a lot of those things can come from sitting down to talk to your support team and going, “Hey, what are the top 10 questions that you get on a regular basis? Cool. Let’s take the next two weeks and make that specific portion of the documentation more clear.” Then it takes work off of their plate, it improves the experience for everyone because you know that not everyone is reaching out to support when they hit that point and can’t figure it out. There’s a lot of people that are just going to drop off. It incrementally moves you closer to shortening that gap of someone signed up, here’s how long it took them to do that first action.
[00:28:18] Patrick: The quicker they do this, theoretically, the quicker they are to do something else.
[00:28:22] Mary: Exactly.
[00:28:22] Patrick: And the quicker they are to give you more money. It’s the extrapolation.
[00:28:26] Mary: It makes your product stickier. It means that it’s a shorter amount of time for them to figure it out, which means it’s a better experience because they’re not frustrated trying to figure out how everything works. Which then means they’ve had their first impression, which means they might have a good second impression. It’s just a waterfall.
[00:28:43] Patrick: Let’s talk about burnout. You talked about it a bit in the pre-show questionnaire and one of the things that caught my eye in your answer was that as part of burnout and combatting that, you said that it’s important to have “a manager who consistently supports the team’s initiatives and protects them from trouble higher up.” I think that fits in well with some of our themes today. Looking at that specifically, that trouble from a higher up and having someone who protects you, what does that trouble look like?
[00:29:09] Mary: I think a lot of times probably the most common thing that folks see in any community department is, I mentioned this earlier, stakeholders who don’t understand your value, who don’t really have a good grasp on what is it that you do exactly? How is it that you help drive the company forward? How is it that your last five trips in the last three months have contributed in ways other than just taking money out of the bank?
[00:29:34] Patrick: [laughs] That’s a bad look. Just the person that goes to the bank with the bag and comes back full.
[00:29:42] Mary: Yes, that’s actually one of the things I had, I’m blanking on their name right now. I had someone tell me, and this was a case study that I actually did in my book that’s coming out soon, the idea that you want to make sure that your work output that you’re reporting on a regular basis and that your goals at the end of the quarter aren’t only things that are dollar signs to your CFO and you’re CEO. If you say, “I want to speak at five conferences this next quarter,” that’s great but don’t frame it in that way. Frame it in, “I want to increase awareness by 10%,” or “I want to get X number of people giving me feedback through various events.” Then that turns into a proxy by which you can do that thing. Otherwise, you say, “I want to speak at five conferences,” and they go, “Cool because you want to travel the world and go to the conference parties and spend a lot of money. What good does that do us?
Having a manager who not only understands the value of devrel but can articulate that is key, I believe. Otherwise, we land in these situations where the team is not only trying to prove their value to the higher ups and stakeholders but they’re also trying to prove their value to their manager. That’s a really, really difficult situation for anyone to be in. Especially when you’re involved in the community because then there’s so much wishy-washiness around like, “What is it that you’re doing today? Oh right. Well, that’s not as important. Can you do this thing instead?”
If you have someone who understands the value of devrel and can keep you going on that straight and narrow, you don’t get pulled into handling the latest 10 support tickets or being the technical support on the sales call or helping marketing with the rebranding of the website or any of the other things that you get pulled into.
[00:31:34] Patrick: Writing the blog.
[00:31:34] Mary: People who are well qualified to do community work and developer relations work particularly are blessed and cursed. [chuckles] I like to say it. You’ve got the ability to at least do a little bit of code or understand the technical side of things even if you aren’t the person sitting down at your command line and putting stuff in, you’ve got that side. You’re usually very well spoken, you can write decently well, you can communicate with people very well. All of these different things, which is great but a lot of companies look at that and don’t really know where to put you. You wind up being kind of marketing, kind of product, kind of sales, kind of support and having a manager that can go, “No, sorry, here’s our goal for this quarter. That doesn’t line up with this goal. We don’t have time for that.”
Having that umbrella protection is huge because otherwise you wind up spending time on things that are urgent but not important and that’s draining emotionally as well as physical mental energy goes.
[00:32:35] Patrick: Is the manager rare who understands devrel?
[00:32:38] Mary: It is. It’s getting better. [laughs] I think part of the problem and part of the reason why it’s rare is because devrel specifically in community as a whole but devrel specifically is still a fairly new thing. Finding someone who is qualified to be a people manager which usually means they’ve been a people manager for a few years and also has a background in developer relations, is difficult because there aren’t that many of us who have been in developer relations for that long. You pull someone over from product or from marketing, but a marketing person who understands the awareness side of marketing, not just the MQL, SQL, leads side of marketing.
Some of it is a matter of teaching those people how to do that job. I had an amazing experience at SparkPost for a while. The hiring manager who brought me in sat me down at the final interview and was like, “Look, I have no experience in developer relations, I have no experience in community building. I’m an engineering manager but I know that I don’t have that experience and that’s why we’re bringing you in. You’re not going to be managing the team but I’m going to be leaning on you really heavily to help me understand these concepts and help me get to a point where I can lead this team effectively with your help.”
It was a part engineering and part community team. It was a unique experience but it was so refreshing to hear someone go, “I don’t know what I’m doing but I need your help. I know the manager side of it so if you can help me understand where you’re going, why you’re choosing to go that way, the direction that you’re heading in, we can work together as a team and make this a really good thing.”
[00:34:22] Patrick: That makes sense. I have to assume that having someone with some technical know-how, some developer perspective is probably more viable than someone who has a generic marketing perspective. We talked about community in devrel. I think it’s a common story of the community manager who is dropped into a company, who has never had one and is thrown into the middle of the pile so to speak. Surrounded by people who don’t understand the work and then surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, fails in one way or another or a year is up and it’s time to move on because no one understands it and it just doesn’t work out. Now sticking with that a little bit we often tie burnout to working too hard, working hours that are too long, being connected 24/7 etcetera. If inadequate resources and a lack of buy-in like we’re talking about are the cause of stress, and then you mentioned it’s mostly draining, and you’re just not doing those resources of buy-in. What’s the answer? Is it simply leaving? Is it is getting out of there as soon as possible in finding the next job? Are there other ways to cope with that in the meantime? What’s your take on that?
[00:35:26] Mary: I think there are definitely sometimes when leaving is the best option. I think there are some companies that you will find that are more willing to listen than others. There are some companies who will just be very open about the fact, even when they’re interviewing you, of like, “We don’t know what we’re doing, you’re going to help us figure that out.” The companies where that type of mentality is successful I think are ones where the stakeholders are willing to extend a seat at the table, first of all, to that community person who’s coming in but also take away some of their biases of, “Well ,this is the way that we’ve done things the last 10, 20, 30 years, this is what’s always worked.” It takes people recognizing maybe what always works doesn’t work anymore, maybe there is a new way to do things, maybe there is a different version of the way that we’ve been doing things that would work better. I think that’s part of it. Those companies are becoming more readily available. It’s an uphill battle sometimes if you’re going in as a brand new, you’re the only community person on the team because there’s a lot of battles that you have to fight. A lot of times you’re going to have to raise your hand and go, “Not actually the way that we should be doing this.” The important thing to remember there is if you’re going to make statements like that, if you’re going to raise your hand and say, “That’s not going to go over well,” make sure you have examples to back it up.
Either there companies that you can point to who have done that in the past and its failed miserably or companies who are doing it the opposite end of the spectrum and are doing fantastic jobs with it and it’s very clear to see they’re doing really well with this thing and it’s resulting in these various wins for them. I think feeling like you’re having to fight those battles on a daily basis, it’s exhausting. It’s a matter of feeling like you were hired as an expert and being told that you were hired because they don’t have anyone who knows how to do this and then being told, “You’re absolutely the expert but we do things this way. Absolutely, what do you think we should do in this situation? Well, that’s not a feasible option for us right now.”
It leaves you in this place of limbo trying to figure out what your best options are professionally because you want to make it work at the company. Also, having to set up your own boundaries to make sure that you’re not getting yourself to a point where you’re either really not pleased with the work that you’re doing or just struggling so hard to get your point across that you come across as antagonistic and argumentative and not a good team player.
[00:38:05] Patrick: I can certainly back that up. I’ve been at the job that I’m at now for 11 months in 3 days and I just happen to know the day of the month. Realistically, I didn’t need a job, I wanted something new. Before this, I always worked for myself. I was looking at different companies for a couple years. I turned down some offers, some people didn’t want me that I was really interested in, and a lot of roles weren’t senior enough. It just took so long to find a role where those things lined up, where it was senior enough, where there was enough buy-in, where I would have enough freedom, where my time that I’ve developed and experience that I have would be respected or I wouldn’t be undercut or micromanaged.
I had a lot of great conversations. One of the ones that I think it’s funny is I went to interview with this startup in New York, and they’re really beyond startup, they’re a pretty successful company. If you’re listening you probably you might have heard of them, they’re not Facebook or anything like that but it’s a well-known company in their space, they’re successful. There was a junior, a little too junior for me role, but they had some things I was interested so I applied to those and I was like, “Hey if you could raise it up, I’d be interested.” I went to their office and I sat down with I think it was like the VP of something, he was a nice guy. I sat down with them, we talked about community and they said, “We’ll just throw things at you and see what you think,” and a lot of these turn into free consulting sessions in some way. He’s like, “Well, we’re thinking about doing this community and we just don’t have anybody in there. I was thinking that I’d create 10 or 20 accounts and post as myself and create some fake accounts.” It’s such a basic elementary thing.
I said, “No, you shouldn’t do that because, think about if you made a friend and then you found out that friend was actually the other friend that you already knew, how would you feel?” It was weird because it was like, “Wow, you’re right.” Hopefully, they didn’t do that. They don’t say, “Wow, that’s a great insight Patrick.” because it’s not, it’s called human relationships. That’s the mentality of a lot of people who you’re talking with to interview for a role, is that seems like an okay thing to do. I know having a couple hour conversation there. I met the CEO even, I was supposed to be there for a half hour, we had a good conversation and it dropped off. It’s basic elementary insights on human relationships and communication are often not there 100%. I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, I think we want shortcuts, I think ethics are sometimes in question. The current CEO of Reddit lectured students not that long ago telling them to create fake accounts to launch their sites because that’s what he did when he started Reddit.
When you’ve got people who made money and were profitable and advertise success and they recommend this as a tactic, not as a cautionary tale, it propagates. That’s the mentality of a lot of people you were interviewing for. I think as you said, if they’re open to their knowledge, if they’re open to the information they want to give you the freedom, that’s the roles you want. I’ll attest too, just like you said, that it can be challenging to find those roles, it took me years.
[00:41:01] Mary: I think the key is finding those people who are willing to have those conversations, who go, “That’s not something we should be doing.” It seems simple to those of us who have been doing this for awhile but there’s some of those things that they have a completely different amazing skill set and don’t have to think about these things. Then they’re approached with it and they go, “Okay, what’s the easiest way to do this?” or Google what another successful company did, which is never a foolproof plan. Figuring out how to have those conversations, how to present that information in a way that makes sense to them.
Like I was saying earlier, this is where my journalism side comes in. Framing your stories in a way that makes sense to the CTO as well as the VP of marketing, as well as your CEO, if you happen to have conversations with them, making sure that they understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and why it’s important that you’re doing in that particular way is huge. One of the things that I do often with clients and with any new company that I’m working with is we draw out what I call a mall map and you start with, “Cool, what’s your end goal, where do you actually want to find yourself? Cool, let’s call that Nordstrom’s.”
You walk in on one side of the mall and Nordstrom’s is on the other side of the mall. What are the things that you’re going to see you as you start making your way to Nordstrom’s, that’s your major goal? You’re going to see the American Eagle store and you’re going to see the GAP store and you’re going to see all the different places but there’s also things to avoid. There is the guys that are hocking makeup and tapping everyone on the shoulder as they walk by trying to get them to buy the latest, greatest product. You want to avoid that trap because it’s an easy trap to fall into.
The other thing to realize is that there are sometimes when you’re making your way to Nordstrom’s but you happen upon Macy’s instead. Turns out Macy’s is a better fit for what you’re doing and you might not have realized that at the beginning but you know it now. Being able to make that realization and then go back to your stakeholders and say, “Okay, I know this is where we’re headed, I know this is the plan, but based on these observations, based on these anecdotes, based on this qualitative as well as quantitative data, here’s the reason why we need to make this decision and head in this direction.”
I think the key is finding companies that are willing to listen to the conversation and go, “Okay, that sounds like a good direction, it sounds like you thought it through, it sounds like you thought it out. You’re the one that’s talking to those people, those community members day in day out, we trust you to make the right decision for the community. We understand that if you make the right decision for the community then that benefits a company as well.”
[00:43:46] Patrick: You told me before the show that you are passionate about pushing the developer relations industry forward. What’s the next step?
[00:43:54] Mary: I think for me a big part of it is education. Its helping people understand that devrel and community building is not just a checklist item. I live in San Francisco, it’s startup central if you will and there are so many places that go, “Okay, we need devrel, cool.” They make a job description and I’ve actually seen a few of these that aren’t even developer advocate or technical community manager but it’s a devrel job description, which don’t ask me what that is because I don’t know what that role actually entails.
It’s this idea of, we get this person in here and they are the magic fix and they will make our company successful. There’s a huge education gap there around this is a long tail thing, this is not a quick fix, this is not an easy process, this is relatively expensive and takes a long time and it’s difficult to track metrics around as we mentioned. Educating people all around, especially stakeholders, VPs of product, VPs of tech or VPs of engineering, CEOs, all of those people throughout the company who are going to have a stake in this, making sure that they understand that it’s not an ancillary thing, either. Devrel is going to be working with engineering, they’re going to be working with product, they’re going to be working with marketing and sales. Making sure that those people who are in charge of those departments at least have a cursory knowledge of what is developer relations and what’s the value that they can bring. How can we help them and how can they help us because it really is, it’s a give and take and pushing it forward in that way. I think we’ve done some work on training community builders, training people who are interested in developer relations and that’s getting better, it’s spinning up, it’s getting there. We can train people to do the jobs as much as they want but if the people who were in charge of the companies don’t understand the value, what good is it then?
[00:45:47] Patrick: Mary, I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
[00:45:51] Mary: Thanks. I really appreciate it, Patrick.
[00:45:53] Patrick: We’ve been talking with Mary Thengvall founder Persea Consulting. Connect with Mary at marygrace.community and on Twitter at @mary_grace. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned please visit communitysignal.com.
Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Special thanks to Maggie McGarry for her input into this episode. Until next time.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.