The first impulse for most companies when standing up a new business function is to hire the leader first. She establishes the company’s strategy in that function, hires out the rest of the squad, then executes with the benefit of experience not shared by anyone in the organization. Those companies hand a list of the top brands executing that function at a level of excellence to a search firm, bring in all those captains and lieutenants, then snag one with a promotion to major.
For companies setting up a developer relations function, it’s around this time I’ll get a call from the hiring manager. “I’ve dumped 100 hours into this search, Rob,” she’ll say, “I still can’t find anyone to fill this goddamn role.”
“This is insane,” she’ll continue, “Our product is rad as hell, we’re signing up customers like crazy, we got a dumptruck full of money in the bank and every other req on our job board is raining CVs like a monsoon.”
“Why the hell is it so hard to hire a leader for my devrel function?”
Why Hiring Leaders In Developer Evangelism Is So Hard
Hiring technical talent is the single biggest challenge for any technology company right now. With demand for developer jobs exceeding the supply by a full order of magnitude, anyone who can write code can raise her hand on Twitter and have a dozen recruiters reach out before the end of the day. Most of those recruiters are employed by the Big Five software companies who are equipped to outspend the market by 2-3x while offering free food, massages and pony rides. And if that engineer is looking to explore another type of role, few gigs remain in the global economy for which programming skill is not an instant ticket to the top of the resume pile.
If the market for engineers is white hot, the market for engineering leadership is the surface of the Sun. Developing individual technical talent into teams that ship consistently and predictably is a skill set so coveted many companies you know engage a separate outside recruiting firm for each opening. Companies rent houses, engage white glove moving firms and secure private school enrollment to relocate these hires, extending the kind of crazy perks you don’t even see on Wall Street for middle management.
Now tack on requirements like marketing fundamentals, product management, technical writing, customer service, and public communications and you end up with a total global candidate pool in the mere dozens. Hiring technical people is hard. Hiring technical leaders is harder.
Hiring technical leaders that can take your product to market is beating Mega Man 11 using only your feet hard.
Why You Should Start With An Individual Contributor
For companies that aren’t doing any developer outreach today – especially for those that are not doing any marketing today – I recommend starting with a developer evangelist first. While they are themselves difficult to find, the search will get completed in a third of the time and there are unique advantages to starting off your program with an individual contributor.
Fitting to the Market
Every product that touches customers requires iteration if it is to become successful. Developer tools are no different, but the cost to the customer of that iteration are multiples than other types of software they consume. If fixing a blemish in your API means introducing a breaking change, every single application that uses it will have to change as well. For every single company using that API, stories will need to be written, points will need to be allocated, tests will need to be redone, code will need to be deployed. This all comes way after carefully considering what effect the change has to the product your customer is building.
If your product interfaces with your customer’s code, iterating early is imperative to creating the customer experience you want. Changing an interface is a lot easier when you have 10 customers using it than when you have 100. An individual developer evangelist can take your product on the road and watch how developers use it. Just getting the thing in the field will produce more insight in a week than you’d get if you dumped your credit limit on SurveyMonkey.
If your product is just getting going, a developer evangelist is going to serve your product better than a leader. While a leader might need a few months to grok the product, survey the market, build the recruiting pipeline, connect with the stakeholders, and develop the first iteration of a plan, your evangelist hire can get the thing in front of developers right away and bring back what matters and what doesn’t on the roadmap.
Figuring Out What Works
Any good marketing strategy is going to be tailored to the product, but cutting that cloth for a developer tool is more complex than an application. Bringing swipe-a-credit-card-and-go software to the market means identifying the problem it intends to solve, finding the moments the customers encounter that problem and getting a message about your product in front of them in that moment.
Developer tools have an additional dimension of complexity in the marketing matrix. Not only do you need to nail the messaging and medium, they also need to land at the appropriate time in the development lifecycle.
A payments service is not going to be useful to a team that is prototyping. An application framework is not going to be useful to a team that is getting ready to ship. A new version control system is a tough sell to a product with three years of development. Evaluating problem need and evaluating project impact are loosely coupled concerns in most software projects, creating a smaller window of opportunity to introduce something useful.
Missing that window means missing that customer. Finding the types of outreach activities that match the window for the projects encountering the problem you solve requires a lot of trial and error.
Previous experience can narrow that window some, but developer tools are so radically different that the game plan from one company is not likely to succeed at another. Stripe’s strategy is not going to work at Clarifai. Mashery’s strategy is not going to work at Mapbox.
Trying a bunch of things and seeing what works requires individual contribution. An enthusiastic player experimenting at high velocity can help find where your product is best introduced than a coach trying to shoehorn your product into a previous playbook.
Your Best Recruiting Tool
Once you have an individual contributor in the field, finding the ultimate leader of your devrel organization will be a lot easier. First, the community of professionals doing this type of work is very small and they all talk to each other. After your evangelist hire gets out in the field, who is good and looking for work will become apparent quickly. All these folks grab coffee, dinner and drinks while working these events – the only way to get around this vocation’s water cooler is to get out there.
Second, getting some quality content and conference programming out there will elevate not just the awareness of your product but your availability of your employment. Including intentionally your hiring needs in your field work and online content will give you unique gravitation in the technical talent pool for all areas of your business, including the one you want leading your evangelism team.
Finally, your evangelist should be able to rack up a few raving fans in those first few months. Those folks sharing their positive experience about your product on consumer and developer-centric social media channels will be as strong a force multiplier for your recruiting as it will for your revenue curve.
Getting someone out doing the work first can help soften the ground for your recruiting team.
Get Out, Then Get Up
Hopefully the advantages of getting the thing you built to market first and then building your organization around what you learn resonates. I’m always surprised when I talk to organizations that will take a lean crawl-walk-run approach for nearly everything in their business, except developer outreach.
Getting that first person in the field is an important first step that can carry you further and faster than waiting for the unicorn leader to walk in the door.