What is developer relations? Understanding the 'glue' that keeps software and coders together

DevRel teams can help software companies understand what developers want from their applications and make them better.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Developer relations can be conflated with marketing - though the reality is a little more nuanced.

Image: Morsa Images / Getty

The success of any piece of software is wholly reliant on getting it into the hands of developers and making them want to use it. If a vendor can't convince developers that their tool is useful, intuitive and well-supported, chances are it will become yet another headstone in the perpetually expanding app graveyard.

Developer relations is an interesting role in that it somewhat straddles the product, engineering and marketing units within an organization. Chiefly, the purpose of developer relations is to promote a company's software tool to the wider developer community and figure out exactly what developers need from said tool in order to make it work from them. This feedback is then taken back to other teams within the organization so any issues and improvements can be made.  

It's common to see developer relations roles in companies whose target market, or at least, their most important customers, are developers themselves.

SEE: What is a software developer? Everything you need to know about the programmer role and how it is changing

While not exactly new, developer relations – or DevRel – has become more mainstream in more recent years as businesses seek to find out how developers are using their digital products and address any sticking points that could hinder adoption.

"I think a developer relations team can really add to the value of the technology, partly again because a good developer relations team makes it very clear to the community that the company is listening to and implementing the feedback that they're getting," says Mary Thengvall, director of developer relations at Camunda, an open-source automation platform.

Developer relations can take different forms and can mean different things to different organizations. It can involve: talking about a vendor's app at a conference; creating tutorials and walkthrough videos for YouTube; creating app resources for GitHub or responding to questions from developers on Stack Overflow.

At its core, however, DevRel is about building rapport with the developer community and leveraging this to figure out how to build successful software applications. In this sense, developer relations is about closing the feedback loop and creating a bridge between the people who use the software and the wider organization, says Lorna Mitchell, head of developer relations at open-source software company, Aiven.

"You need a way to speak to your developers," Mitchell tells ZDNet. "You have to be there – to be in the communities where the developers are. If someone has a question about your product on Stack Overflow, you want to be responding to that."

Mitchell describes developer relations as a "glue" role, which is why it's common to see it report into different parts of an organization. "I report into marketing; it's not unusual to report into product; you see it in engineering sometimes. That's where it came from and sometimes it's still there."

Naturally, then, communication is a key pillar of the DevRel role. Not only do they need to effectively communicate the needs of highly specialized technical professionals back to less and even non-technical staff, but DevRel teams also need to be able to communicate the purpose or function of their tool in a way that's meaningful to developers.

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And developers are unlikely to be convinced by superficial marketing spiel, says Mitchell. "There's a real storytelling aspect to developer relations, when you're creating that content. But you definitely need the technical chops to back it up, or you are going to hear about it."

She adds: "The community do not appreciate people who are not on their level, and so the more expert your target customer, the more technical skills your DevRel team needs."

While developer relations is often bundled into marketing and sales (it is, in a sense, marketing for developers), Thengvall suggests that the reality is a little more nuanced.

"I think there are elements of that that are true: we do some marketing-related activities, we do some product-related activities, we do some customer success-related activities, but there's no other team in the company that has only the success of the [developer] community as at the forefront of our mind," she says.

"The primary goal for us is really making people successful in solving the problems that they have, and so having that focus really opens us up to be able to say, 'We identify these gaps, we see these are areas for improvement and we're really going to move these things forward.'"

Thengvall says developer relations teams in many ways act as 'customer zero', providing an opportunity for an organization to test out their APIs before they go into the wider developer community and address any potential gaps ahead of time.

"The developer relations team also gives valuable feedback about not only how the community is responding to the product and how they're choosing to use it, but also what the initial experience might be as we're trying out new features and testing out new versions of the software," she says.

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While not necessarily the most thrilling of subject areas, documentation plays a hugely important role in DevRel – particularly as businesses race to launch new digital offerings and competition between vendors heats up.

"You can't expect people to just know how to use something, or for it to be considered completely intuitive for everyone who's exploring it for the first time. So, making sure that things are well documented is incredibly important," says Thengvall.

Mitchell agrees, adding that documentation often needs to be quite granular. "I see a lot of really specific questions – just a very detailed 'How do I configure this particular thing, what do I do with this integration, or with this particular shape of data'…It can be really hard to create those materials," she says.

If the thought of curating painstakingly detailed technical documentation for an exacting developer userbase doesn't put you off, DevRel roles are currently plentiful. "The sheer number of developer relations job openings right now is just ridiculous," says Thengvall. 

"It has shot up within the last year and I think people are starting to realize that they really do need a voice to the community, and they need someone who can be communicating back to the company on behalf of the community. So, we definitely need more developer relations professionals."

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