Looking For a Developer Evangelist? Start With Your Sales Engineering Team

The Skills Crossover is Surprisingly Deep

The Challenge: A good developer advocacy and evangelism program requires its team to develop a set of esoteric skills that can be difficult to come by "in the wild". These skills include:

  • Detailed knowledge and experience about the technical aspects of your products and services.

  • Detailed knowledge and experience with common software engineering workflows, tooling, jargon, etc.

  • The ability to communicate clearly and effectively in a variety of media such that developer audiences are receptive to and engage with the content.

  • Comfort and enjoyment working directly with individuals, speaking in front of large groups, and educating technical audiences with widely varying skills levels 

As the practice of developer relations grows, the talent pool increases, but competition for that talent increases along with it. Many experienced developer evangelists are phenomenal in executing on their tasks, but are rarely involved in the high level strategic planning that actually defines their roles and could help the business better optimize their product strategy, marketing, and sales approaches for targeting developer audiences. 

Developer advocacy is more powerful than evangelism alone: I find that many in the industry use the terms "developer evangelist" and "developer advocate" interchangeably. To my mind, there is a clear and distinct difference.

Developer Evangelists "evangelize" on the value and capabilities of a product or service to a developer audience. They often attend developer-targeted events such as hackathons and conferences to interact directly with these audiences, and produce content with the intent of driving developer adoption and shortening time to integration. While these individuals may also provide some level of developer support and feedback to drive their products' feature set, the organization to which they belong most often sees them as an extension to marketing. As a result, many developer evangelists report into the marketing organization, either as a product marketing manager or in some similar function. 

Developer Advocates also perform many of the evangelism functions, but their focus is primarily with developer success. The difference is subtle, but important. Developer advocates should spend most of their time listening to their developer customers, providing technical support for thorny integration issues that fall outside the scope of product support, and generating content and tooling in direct response to common challenges their target audiences have with their products. A developer advocate position is a true cross-departmental role with toes dipped in product, engineering, marketing, and even sales. They should be focused entirely on optimizing the experience for developers, removing any roadblocks to product integration, and acting like a team of "developer gurus" to provide guidance to the rest of the organization. 

Many companies looking for a developer evangelist - focused mainly on marketing to developers - would be better served by a practice more focused on developer advocacy. The benefits include:

  • An internal "voice of the developer" who can help define marketing and sales messaging and empower the members of those teams to better serve their developer audiences.

  • Developer advocates often act as de facto product managers, reviewing roadmaps from a developer customer perspective and offering valuable recommendations based on direct customer feedback.

  • Developer audiences have a reputation for being tricky because their technical knowledge allows them to cut through a lot of "marketing spin". Developer advocates can help communicate product value to this audience in an authoritative voice.

Finding the passion for this work is easy; finding experience is harder. Many organizations look to their own pool of developers when they begin looking for good evangelists. But developers are rarely hired or even trained for their ability to communicate to a mass audience. The most talented developers, regardless of their communications skills, are often tightly focused on product enhancements where their value is stronger. For them, advocacy is not only a distraction, it shifts their career path in a direction they may not necessarily prefer to follow.

In my experience, it's easier to find someone with a strong technical background and train them to become better communicators and strategists than it is to train someone with little technical experience to the degree demanded by a developer audience. If you have developers on your team who have expressed an interest in or talent for developer advocacy, it may be a good investment to shore up their writing and speaking skills and use them as the seed for your developer relations program. But, if you're an enterprise company with a strong technical sales discipline, you may already have employees ready to take on this challenge. 

The skills crossover between developer advocates and sales and solutions engineers is surprisingly deep. Organizations with a strong technical sales practice often have a support team of dedicated engineers who are goaled on helping sales executives close deals by providing technical assistance for demos and proof of concept integrations, and acting as the interface between the sales team and the prospects' technical teams. Members of these teams go by several titles, including "sales engineer", "solutions engineer", "solutions architect", etc. 

These engineers are the technical face of the company for their customers. Where the sales executives are often working with purchasers on the "business" side of the house, sales engineers are working directly with their prospects' developers and architects to work through technical solutions, create customized integrations and product adaptors, and do what's necessary to ensure their prospects recognize the value of the product while pushing toward closed sales. To support this, they often produce developer-targeted documentation, guides and tutorials, build and publish demos, and provide detailed answers to any technical questions that come their way. 

Sales engineers differ from developer advocates in how they perform their work and how they are goaled. Where a developer advocate will provide documentation and support for as many of their targeted audiences as they can, sales engineers are laser focused on the deals in their pipeline. Developer advocates can provide guidance and support both pre- and post-sales, where a sales engineer is assigned to the next deal almost as soon as the last one closes, handing off the customer to a separate long term support process. Developer advocates are goaled on developer audience growth, developer product adoption, content generation, and developer lead generation. Sales engineers are focused on shortening the time to integration for their prospects and helping to close as many deals as possible, often receiving some of the sales commission as part of their compensation.  

Developer relations may be an ideal career path for sales engineers. While their skill levels are often on par with their developer peers on the core engineering team, sales engineers often choose their path because it offers opportunities to work with a variety of interesting people and projects without getting too bogged down in strict development processes and workflows. As they grow in their career, many make the move directly to sales executive, where their technical knowledge becomes a tremendous asset in conversations with prospects. But too many others find they hit a wall without a clear direction forward. This can lead to employee turnover and loss of critical tribal knowledge.

A strong developer relations discipline can provide a path that sees them growing not only in their skills, but their prominence in the wider developer community, exposing them to new opportunities they can leverage to better attract developer customers and help them through their journey with your products. 

The Bottom Line: Finding a good developer advocate or developer evangelist is even more difficult than finding a good developer. If you're struggling, look within your own sales engineering organization or seek candidates who have held similar roles in the past. The path from sales engineer to developer evangelist is a short one that can help give your developer relations program the kick start it needs.