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Developer advocates are people with a strong technical background, whose job is to help developers be successful with a platform or technology. They act as a bridge between the engineering team and the developer community. A developer advocate does not only fill in the gap between developers and the platform but also looks after the development of developers in terms of traction and progress on their projects.

Developer advocacy, is broadly referred to as “developer relations”. Those who practice developer advocacy have fallen into in this profession in one way or another. As the processes and theories in the world of programming have evolved over several years, so has the idea of developer advocacy. This is the result of developer advocates who work in the wild using their own initiatives.

This article is an excerpt from the book Developer, Advocate! by Geertjan Wielenga. This book serves as a rallying cry to inspire and motivate tech enthusiasts and burgeoning developer advocates to take their first steps within the tech community.

The question then arises, how does one become a developer advocate? Here are some experiences shared by some well-known developer advocates on how they started the journey that landed them to this role.

Is developer advocacy taught in universities?

Bruno Borges, Principal Product Manager at Microsoft says, for most developer advocates or developer relations personnel, it was something that just happened. Developer advocacy is not a discipline that is taught in universities; there’s no training specifically for this. Most often, somebody will come to realize that what they already do is developer relations. This is a discipline that is a conjunction of several other roles: software engineering, product management, and marketing.

I started as a software engineer and then I became a product manager. As a product manager, I was engaged with marketing divisions and sales divisions directly on a weekly basis. Maybe in some companies, sales, marketing, and product management are pillars that are not needed. I think it might vary. But in my opinion, those pillars are essential for doing a proper developer relations job. Trying to aim for those pillars is a great foundation. Just as in computer science when we go to college for four years, sometimes we don’t use some of that background, but it gives us a good foundation.

From outsourcing companies that just built business software for companies, I then went to vendor companies. That’s where I landed as a person helping users to take full advantage of the software that they needed to build their own solutions. That process is, ideally, what I see happening to others.

The journey of a regular tech enthusiast to a developer advocate

Ivar Grimstad, a developer advocate at Eclipse foundation, speaks about his journey from being a regular tech enthusiast attending conferences to being there speaking at conferences as an advocate for his company. Ivar Grimstad says, I have attended many different conferences in my professional life and I always really enjoyed going to them. After some years of regularly attending conferences, I came to the point of thinking, “That guy isn’t saying anything that I couldn’t say. Why am I not up there?”

I just wanted to try speaking, so I started submitting abstracts. I already gave talks at meetups locally, but I began feeling comfortable enough to approach conferences. I continued submitting abstracts until I got accepted.

As it turned out, while I was becoming interested in speaking, my company was struggling to raise its profile. Nobody, even in Sweden, knew what we did. So, my company was super happy for any publicity it could get. I could provide it with that by just going out and talking about tech. It didn’t have to be related to anything we did; I just had to be there with the company name on the slides. That was good enough in the eyes of my company. After a while, about 50% of my time became dedicated to activities such as speaking at conferences and contributing to open source projects.

Tables turned from being an engineer to becoming a developer advocate

Mark Heckler, a Spring developer and advocate at Pivotal, narrates his experience about how tables turned for him from University to Pivotal Principal Technologist & Developer Advocate. He says, initially, I was doing full-time engineering work and then presenting on the side. I was occasionally taking a few days here and there to travel to present at events and conferences. I think many people realized that I had this public-facing level of activities that I was doing. I was out there enough that they felt I was either doing this full-time or maybe should be.

A good friend of mine reached out and said, “I know you’re doing this anyway, so how would you like to make this your official role?” That sounded pretty great, so I interviewed, and I was offered a full-time gig doing, essentially, what I was already doing in my spare time.

A hobby turned out to be a profession

Matt Raible, a developer advocate at Okta has worked as an independent consultant for 20 years. He did advocacy as a side hobby. He talks about his experience as a consultant and walks through the progress and development.

I started a blog in 2002 and wrote about Java a lot. This was before Stack Overflow, so I used Struts and Java EE. I posted my questions, which you would now post on Stack Overflow, on that blog with stack traces, and people would find them and help. It was a collaborative community. I’ve always done the speaking at conferences on the side.

I started working for Stormpath two years ago, as a contractor part-time, and I was working at Computer Associates at the same time. I was doing Java in the morning at Stormpath and I was doing JavaScript in the afternoon at Computer Associates. I really liked the people I was working with at Stormpath and they tried to hire me full-time. I told them to make me an offer that I couldn’t refuse, and they said, “We don’t know what that is!”

I wanted to be able to blog and speak at conferences, so I spent a month coming up with my dream job. Stormpath wanted me to be its Java lead. The problem was that I like Java, but it’s not my favorite thing. I tend to do more UI work.

The opportunity went away for a month and then I said, “There’s a way to make this work! Can I do Java and JavaScript?” Stormpath agreed that instead of being more of a technical leader and owning the Java SDK, I could be one of its advocates. There were a few other people on board in the advocacy team.

Six months later, Stormpath got bought out by Okta. As an independent consultant, I was used to switching jobs every six months, but I didn’t expect that to happen once I went full-time. That’s how I ended up at Okta!

Developer advocacy can be done by calculating the highs and lows of the tech world

Scott Davis, a Principal Engineer at Thoughtworks, was also a classroom instructor, teaching software classes to business professionals before becoming a developer advocate. As per him, tech really is a world of strengths and weaknesses.

Advocacy, I think, is where you honestly say, “If we balance out the pluses and the minuses, I’m going to send you down the path where there are more strengths than weaknesses. But I also want to make sure that you are aware of the sharp, pointy edges that might nick you along the way.”

I spent eight years in the classroom as a software instructor and that has really informed my entire career. It’s one thing to sit down and kind of understand how something works when you’re cowboy coding on your own. It’s another thing altogether when you’re standing up in front of an audience of tens, or hundreds, or thousands of people.

Discover how developer advocates are putting developer interests at the heart of the software industry in companies including Microsoft and Google with Developer, Advocate! by Geertjan Wielenga. This book is a collection of in-depth conversations with leading developer advocates that reveal the world of developer relations today.

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