“WTF does a Developer Evangelist do?”

I went to see a great talk by Ryan Joy (MSFT) and Keith Casey (Twilio), at Refresh Austin, on what developer evangelists do. I found this surprisingly interesting; this combination of programming and marketing knowledge is a fairly rare and high bar for a developer. Typically the people found for these positions are already active in the community in some way, either people who already exhibit leadership by volunteering a lot of time working with a product (writing blog posts, giving talks, etc), or people who have a lot of connections. For instance, in Microsoft case, the goal was to have access to a lot of developers not already in the Microsoft ecosystem.

These jobs involve a lot of travel, and have high burnout rates- Twilio, for instance cover ~60 events / year / person. Consequently they recommend hiring people near airport hubs, to avoid layovers. Once hiring, there are different models for this- clearly it doesn’t make sense to hire a developer evangelist in the city where you are headquartered, but the size of the region a person covers can vary widely from a single tech city like Austin to an entire state, like Texas. In addition to a lot of travel, the actual work ranges from holding events, light customer support, to dealing with a lot of internal and external politics.

In compensation for these challenges, the position of developer evangelist gives the person with the job a lot of new connections they might not already have, since they are working in a cross-department way (e.g. marketing + product teams). For instance, in sponsoring an event, a developer evangelist might work with multiple departments to provide sponsorships. Interestingly a lot of developer evangelists know each other – their typical goal is to make meetups and conferences successful, which sometimes means referring conference organizers to other companies that do sponsorships.

The companies that do have heavy developer marketing programs clearly require a narrow combination of product features; an easy to use API, plus a reasonably short sales cycle. In the case of Twilio, the goal is to help developers make heavy use of their existing APIs, as they are pricing based on usage, so successful developers = money for twilio. These marketing programs do double-duty, getting both new customers and allowing for soft-interviews (e.g.: whoever wins a hackathon has a very visible achievement and likely an online demo).

Developer evangelists are relatively rare, and spend some time working with volunteers. These include groups like conference organizers, students, and professionals looking for exposure for themselves. In many cases what a conference organizer thinks they have to offer doesn’t benefit companies the way you’d think: twilio, for instance, has way more twitter followers than any conference or meetup, so providing them access to your twitter is not that valuable. In that vein, Microsoft doesn’t really need brand exposure (putting their logo on banners). They much prefer to be able to run hackathons or contests, where they can purchase access to interact with developers.

One way they facilitate this is with canned programs; for instance providing demos, videos, and training to developers who want to hold their own events. This way, you can start your own meetup, and often the company you are indirectly promoting can chip in for food.

“Long-term” sales focus for these guys seems to be in the range of months to a year, which makes sense in fast growing start-ups, but I can’t help but feel like the 5-20 year range is important as well, but most of those benefits are reaped by the developer evangelist themselves, rather than their fast-moving employer. The feeling of the guys who gave this talk was that the industry is going to move beyond “hackathons,” but no one knows what the next thing will be.

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