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InfoQ Homepage Articles Book Review: Developer, Advocate!

Book Review: Developer, Advocate!

Key Takeaways

  • Developer Advocates bridge the gap between engineering and external communication.
  • The unifying threads for developer advocates are enthusiasm, helpfulness, and communication.
  • What separates advocacy from marketing is authenticity, where advocates fully understand and use the technology in their domain.
  • Although many advocates are public speakers, all advocates are effective listeners to their communities.
  • To a community, advocates are often seen to represent their company. To the company, advocates represent the community.

The Developer Advocate book is a set of well-coordinated interviews with prominent technologists that provides unique insight into the role of Developer Advocate and Developer Relations. With over 30 interviews conducted, readers can see behind the scenes of what many public-facing technologists do and why/how they manage this unique role.

The book is aimed at technologists who watch or encounter advocates, or to developers who want to expand their technology background to include more communication and speaking opportunities rather than working exclusively with code.

Developer Advocacy is a unique blend of many disciplines, where the advocate comes from a background of enthusiastic coding with a desire to share their knowledge. Although advocates typically represent a single company or product, they represent this entity with enthusiasm and a desire to share knowledge. Unlike a typical sales or marketing role, the role of Developer Advocate is focused on community engagement and working on how the technology can help others to achieve a larger goal rather than simply making a purchase.

Developer Advocate is a pick-up-put-down book that people can read with limited attention span. Each chapter is brief, to the point, and constrained so that developers can jump in and out at any time as their attention demands. Each interview has a wealth of information, providing key industry insight whether the reader evaluates a single question or chapter at a time. Clever developers may increase the execution of local unit tests or other materials that keep computers occupied so that they find more time for reading.

Throughout the book, the common themes are enthusiasm, a desire to help others, and respect for communities. Each advocate interviewed focuses their role on communication in the form of coding, speaking and writing. Advocates come from many backgrounds, learning how to code and more importantly, communicate technical aspects that surround what code does and why it is important. The theme of respect is woven throughout the book, with all advocates constantly learning from others as much or more as they educate. Being a successful advocate is not about being the best developer or writing the most code, it is about discussing beneficial technical concepts, listening to feedback, and helping others. Following the question of how to describe what he did to a non-technical person, Venkat Subramanian stated, "Part of what I do is to turn what’s enormously complex  into something that’s very approachable, and in the process, I make that tech relevant and useful for developers to apply to the business they are a part of."

Subramanian also emphasizes the role of communication in developer advocacy and the way it builds on a technical background. "I actually don’t think there are complex concepts; I only believe that there are concepts that are not explained well."

InfoQ had an opportunity to speak with Geertjan Wielenga and several advocates featured in the book, about their experience and involvement:

  • Geertjan Wielenga is a principal figure in the Java and NetBeans communities, having lead NetBeans along its donation to become the largest codebase in the Apache Software Foundation.
  • Jennifer Reif manages developer relations for Neo4j, a well-connected graph database that helps track connections to map the ways in which objects can reach each-other.

InfoQ: What caused you [Wielenga] to perform a set of interviews?

Wielenga: I've been attending and speaking at conferences for many years and, also through the many conversations I've had with the speakers I've met, came to the thought: "Wow, what a lot of shared knowledge these people have. Wouldn't it be great to collect all their insights and slap a cover on the result and call that a book?"

So, I started collecting questions I wanted to ask these potential interviewees and when I was introduced to acquisition editors from Packt who were looking for topics to focus a series of interview-based books on, I was up and running. With Packt, I worked on a toolbox of questions, around the three core topics of 'becoming a developer advocate', 'being a developer advocate', and 'the ethical dilemmas of being a developer advocate'.

InfoQ: There are quite a number of prominent technologists here, describing their journeys. How did you make the decision of which technologists to include?

Wielenga: Initially I started with those who I had earmarked over the years, such as Ted Neward, Scott Davis, and Kirk Pepperdine. Their stories over beers at conferences are always diverse and entertaining. See for example, Scott's story about "the ship of Theseus" in the book, very interesting indeed, on whether an object that has had all its parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object. I tried to focus not only on the three core topics but also on the specific interests of the specific person I was interviewing, which was blockchain with Sally Eaves, for example, and artificial intelligence with Laurence Moroney.

When I interviewed Tim Berglund, who I've always found to be such a crisp and clear communicator, as is clear in the interview I did with him, Mary Thengvall came up, who I hadn't heard of before but who's written one of the few other books on developer advocacy ("The Business Value of Developer Relations") who in turn introduced me to Jono Bacon, who has a wealth of experience in community building. In other cases, Packt suggested specific people to be included, such as Scott Hanselman, for example, who was great and an honor to have in the book too.

InfoQ: Are developers welcoming to advocates with non-traditional tech backgrounds, such as those from other college majors?

Reif: Everyone I’ve come across so far has been incredibly welcoming and interested. There are actually many other developers and advocates in the field who came from other (many times artistic) backgrounds. Some quote my experience that the logic and creativity in computers and the arts (in my case, specifically music) overlap quite heavily, while others are simply curious how the strengths in one background highlight and expand the strengths in the other. It’s been a thrilling switch and one that is received extremely well.

InfoQ: Developer Advocate is a different role: it's not necessarily about being the best. What attributes make a good advocate?

Wielenga: From the book, it's very clear that it's about two specific aspects: enthusiasm and sharing. With Packt, I spent a lot of time working on the subtitle of the book, which really sums up the payload very well indeed: "Conversations on turning a passion for talking about tech into a career.

Reif: I think the biggest one here is the willingness to learn and try new things. Enjoying this type of role will immediately show through an advocate’s speaking, writing, and general demeanor. If a person can thrive in a learning environment and share that excitement with others, then I believe will make an advocate far more effective.

Some other things that also help are enjoying learning from others (talking, reading, etc), good speaking and/or writing skills, and ability to work independently and self-motivate. All of these skills I listed, however, can be learned and practiced, though I believe the toughest one is probably the first one [learning from others]. I specifically mentioned the term "learning from others" because there are a variety of ways advocates can do this. Some roles take on more traveling and speaking engagements, while other roles write and produce more online or written content. Also, this is not the same as being an extrovert. While socialization is often necessary for advocate roles, it’s not always required. I thrive on working remotely and independently most of the time, but I also thrive on learning about others’ experiences and questions. The best way for me to do this is when I speak somewhere and talk to attendees afterward. So, while I have a more introverted personality, the desire to learn overcomes this, and I enjoy socializing in bursts with the goal of learning.

InfoQ: As a counter to the previous question, while many of the technologists have good traits in common, what are some traits that are noticeably missing that could lead to a bad advocate?

Wielenga: A bad advocate is one who does not have a passion for the technology they're promoting and/or is not generous in their time and desire to share knowledge with others. Another aspect of the book that relates here is that of work/life balance. One can get burnt out over time in this role, if you don't keep careful watch over your health and stress levels. Being too passionate is maybe just as bad as being not passionate enough. This job can eat you alive!

InfoQ: Developer Advocate is often similar to marketing. What are the similarities to marketing and public relations?

Wielenga: Well, it's a lot more about sharing than about marketing. It's about meeting developers where they are at and communicating back and forth about the solutions which may be applicable. In some cases, a competing product may be better for a specific use case than the one you're promoting and a developer advocate needs to balance the appropriate response in such situations. That's one of the many ethical aspects discussed in the book. Being authentic is key and honesty is the basis of that, losing one's credibility can be very difficult to recover from.

InfoQ: Is developer advocacy more about coding, talking, or listening?

Wielega: All of the above! That's why it's so appealing. It's the perfect career for those who get bored easily or, more positively, who enjoy having multiple irons on the fire at the same time. If you've never been able to make a choice in terms of what you want to focus on, yet you're enthusiastic and enjoy sharing knowledge, the role of developer advocate may be for you, and it's a question of finding someone to pay you for your skillset. That too is discussed in the book, i.e., how to get started in this role, which includes going to local meetups and working on open source projects, such as via GitHub.

In fact, many people may already be developer advocates without knowing it, until now. :-)

About the Interviewees

Geertjan Wielenga is Senior Principal Product Manager at Oracle for Oracle JET and Apache NetBeans PMC Chair.


Jennifer Reif is a Developer Relations Engineer at Neo4j, conference speaker, blogger, and an avid developer and problem-solver. She holds a Master’s degree in Computer Management and Information Systems and has worked with large enterprises to organize and make sense of widespread data assets and leverage them for maximum business value. She has worked with a variety of commercial and open source tools and enjoys learning new technologies, sometimes on a daily basis! Her passion is finding ways to organize chaos and deliver software more effectively.

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