The 4 C’s of Developer Relations Programs and Best Practices

Jason Harmon CTO
by Jason Harmon CTO on June 1, 2023 5 min read

This week on the API Intersection podcast, we interviewed Ash Arnwine, Director of Developer Relations at Nylas. Ash’s Devrel program is unique in that both developer advocacy and the documentation team report to the Devrel program.

His team currently faces the challenges of scaling the platform’s high-touch integration process as they work to create more of a self-serve platform. His DevRel team is also tasked with the importance of brand recognition and building credibility with developers through content creation and community engagement. I spoke with Ash about what it takes to create a solid DevRel team and how to start building a world-class program. Let’s dive in.

The Four C’s: What Makes a Good DevRel Hire?

Ash shared with us his “Four C’s Framework” for creating a solid DevRel program and hiring the right type of team. That includes Code, Context, Collaboration, and Creative.

The First: Coding Ability

This one’s obviously a must-have because to have credibility in the developer world, you need to be able to code and understand what your community is dealing with daily. Without a technical background, your developer relations team could come off as hollow or marketing-only individuals.

The Second: Content Creation Skills (Creative)

This is a must…though it doesn’t mean your developer has to be a perfect writer. It’s more about what they are interested in creating, what forms they create in (blog, video, podcast, etc.), and if they can communicate an idea effectively. This bucket is also about the importance of thinking outside the box and experimenting with what you create.

The Third: Community Engagement Experience (Collaboration)

This category emphasizes the ability to work well with different teams and stakeholders internally in addition to the external engagement. DevRel folks need to be team players and cross-functional in order to succeed.

“We look at ensuring we’ve got an awesome solid collaboration skill across marketing and product and engineering and design at a bare minimum,” shares Ash.

In order for developer experience (DevEx) to stand firm, there needs to be a strong collaboration between marketing, product, engineering, and design teams to create a great experience for developers.

But it’s not just the other internal teams that DevRel needs to stay in step with; it’s also the customers and your own developers. Ash emphasizes the importance of regularly talking to your developers directly to gain insights and feedback, as well as a handful of your actual customers and end-users. Pick teammates who are comfortable engaging and interfacing with the external community, and bonus points if they already have a presence on social media or in other forms of communities your organization cares about.

The Fourth and Final: Context.

Context involves understanding the industry, trends, and target audience. This also implies staying on top of content trends ahead of time. Ash noted that their developer advocates were already putting out content related to leveraging ChatGPT APIs and using GPT for tasks like translation and localization months ahead of the trend exploding into mainstream conversations.

In addition to these critical things, Ash also emphasizes the importance of inclusivity and finding the right balance between coding expertise and other DevRel responsibilities. It also helps to have teammates with multiple SDKs for multiple programming languages to cater to diverse developer needs.

Where to Start?

We know DevRel is essential, but how do you go about it successfully? Ash emphasizes that it’s a combination of mindset, approach, and comfort with the crowd in developer relations hiring, as well as how you treat your DevRel team.

When asked about how to get started with developer relations, Ash suggests talking to experienced practitioners and understanding the business’s current needs and gaps in developer support. Find someone who can help define the areas of responsibility for the developer relations team and gain buy-in from the top down.

“You need to start with a clear understanding of why developer relations are needed and how it can contribute to business growth. Some companies often overlook this step and end up rebooting their developer relations efforts from scratch,” shares Ash.

Measuring Success

When it comes to what to measure success by, there needs to be more than one winning metric for a DevRel program. At Nylas, Ash’s team looks at metrics such as completion rates and feature discovery, but you should really paint a holistic picture of what success looks like.

That means looking at the whole user journey from entrance to exit and the role DevRel places throughout all those key points in the journey. That also means regularly discussing with your end-users whats’ working and what’s not to determine success qualitatively.

“Metrics are super important, but there’s something about being able to sit down with a developer and really understand their expectations and how things worked for them,” shares Ash.

Treat Your Devs Well

“The other part of it that’s important in my mind is just how to think about developer advocates in general, as equal parts engineer and creative,” shares Ash.

There is a strong need for flexibility in the content creation processes, and it’s necessary to make significant space for developers to have creative ideas and experiment. Your developer advocates need space to try new things and conduct deep work, so giving them freedom and a balance between planned content and spontaneous ideas will help the program flourish.

“You’ve got to get out of their way and let them work,” shares Ash, “These things require a ton of time to focus on deep work, to experiment, to really get in there and just be left alone and let them play.”

And on that note, I can’t think of a better way to sign off than “get out of their way and let the developers work.” It was a pleasure learning from Ash, and you can check out Nylas’s 2023 State of Developer Experience report for more tips. For more advice from industry leaders, check out the API Intersection podcast.

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