Make Your DevRel Strategic, Not Operational

As software continues to eat the world, the role of the developer advocate or evangelist – and DevRel in general – is becoming more critical. Companies now see the value in having employees who focus on building relationships with developers. Yet instead of making DevRel strategic, too many companies treat it as an operational activity.

This is a mistake. Companies targeting developers should treat DevRel as a strategic activity vital to achieving business goals.

Strategic vs. Operational

A picture of a person writing on post-it notes and placing them on a board.

What do I mean, exactly, when I talk about strategic and operational?

The business world uses the term “strategy” in different ways. I’m talking about Michael Porter’s definition. The idea that a company should undertake a unique mix of actions to help it build a moat – actions that set it aside from its competitors. These activities can provide the company a unique and defensible strategic market position.

Operational activities are different. They’re what you do daily to keep the business running. You need to do them, but they won’t help you build a competitive advantage. Operational innovations are easy for competitors to copy. 

Think of things like accounting or HR. They’re operational. Even the act of writing code is usually operational. You’re not going to develop a revolutionary way of writing code unless you’re Google. The things your code does might be strategic. But the fact you use Scrum shouldn’t be part of your strategic positioning.

Activities like DevRel that should be strategic can be merely operational. This happens if you tick the standard boxes that everyone ticks. Things like doing a bit of advertising. Or writing some uninspiring blog posts. Or setting up a Discourse forum but don’t engage with anyone who asks questions.

Why Make DevRel Strategic?

So why, exactly, should you treat DevRel as strategic? There are a few reasons why you should consider it.

First, it helps you build real trust with developers. I’m not one of those hipsters who will preach about the importance of “authenticity” when addressing developers. Instead, I’ll say you need to be bullshit-free. Building trust is difficult if you treat DevRel as a operational checkbox on a list of things you think you’re supposed to do. Instead, treat it as a core part of who you are.

This trust is important because developers are becoming the gatekeepers of technology. They decide which products and services to use and recommend to their colleagues. As a result, developers are more likely to use and recommend the products of a company they trust.

Next, DevRel – if done strategically – can help a company understand the needs of developers. Developers are a key customer segment for many companies, so it’s essential to understand their needs. Strategic DevRel helps build these relationships by talking to developers about their needs. These relationships lead to insights that can improve products and services. Operational DevRel is rarely comprehensive enough to lead to iinsight.

DevRel can also help a company position itself as a thought leader in its industry. By making itself known as the kind of company that gets developers, cares about the things they care about, and is actively invested in making their lives better, a company can set itself apart from its competitors. 

As an extra benefit, thought leadership can also help a company attract top talent. The best developers want to work for companies at the forefront of their industry. By positioning themselves as thought leaders, a company can attract these top developers to its team.

But if your treating DevRel as operational, you might not be thinking thoughts developers would consider leadership.

What Next?

DevRel can be a considerable driver of company growth – if you do it right. But you will not see the benefits if you treat it as a token effort rather than a core part of your identity. If you make it part of who you are as a company, however, you can reap the rewards of faster growth, better products, and a stronger position in your industry.

The next question: how do you make your DevRel efforts strategic from the start? And how do you move DevRel in a strategic direction if you have it, but it is operational and ineffective? That’s a topic for another post.

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