If you get ten great developer advocates together, there will be at least 12 ways of doing effective advocacy represented in the room. Effective advocacy is highly dependent on the person doing the advocacy, the community they’re working with, and the products/projects/platforms/ideas that they are experts in.
For example, I don’t particularly like how I look on video. So I don’t make videos that show my face, except recordings at conferences. Instead, I write blog posts or create screencasts. But, I work with many amazing folks who are great at video, and that’s their primary form of outreach.
Likewise, a lot of advocates cultivate a large social media following. But some of the advocates I respect don’t do social media at all, often because it doesn’t feel good and authentic to them.
There are many ways to be an advocate, and success depends heavily on context and the people involved. This makes it hard to answer questions like “what does a normal day look like?” or “what types of things do advocates do?” The answer is a giant “it depends!” But I do think most good advocates have two things in common: empathy and credibility.
Empathy is critical to everything we do in DevRel. I’d argue empathy is essential to everything in tech, but that should be its own blog post. Empathy isn’t precisely the right word either. I can’t see inside anyone’s head, so I don’t know if they feel empathy. But the advocates I respect a lot convey empathy for developers through their actions.
For example, good advocates explain complicated ideas without judgment and without making people feel stupid. Usually, this means that they can put themselves into someone else’s position and understand and respect other people’s experiences and knowledge. Great advocates can also tailor their message to many different audiences, from CEOs to college students to change adverse developers.
Another aspect of empathy I see in the advocates I respect is the ability to read a spec or try a pre-alpha product and identify the friction developers will face or the audiences that will most benefit from the functionality. Effective advocates use this skill to ensure friction gets addressed and that the relevant communities hear about the product once it launches.
Great advocates also show empathy for their teammates and their communities. They understand when a product pitch isn’t appropriate. They know when they should ask questions and when to just listen. They know when to speak up and when to amplify the voices of others. And they know how and when to offer help to their peers and members of their community.
The other thing most great advocates have in common is credibility. In my experience, advocates need credibility with a tech community and their co-workers. Internal credibility can be especially challenging, but it is vital. It is hard to push for developer experience improvements if the decision-makers don’t believe you know your stuff.
A lot of a developer advocate’s credibility comes from technical skills and knowledge. Sometimes this is coding. You can build a lot of trust by sitting down and pairing with someone on a problem they’re having until you’ve solved it together. But coding isn’t the only way to demonstrate technical skills. Some advocates are credible because they have a wealth of experience and knowledge. Others are great at designing or debugging systems. Others can point out the problems with a design before anyone else sees them. There are a lot of ways to show technical credibility.
I used to think that technical credibility was binary; people either had it or didn’t. But it isn’t that simple. Credibility is something you earn from a community. I’ve watched several impressive advocates change their areas of expertise. Sometimes, it takes years and plenty of humility and curiosity, but you can earn credibility with a community. And the same can be true when building credibility and trust with a difficult partner or stakeholder.
I wish there were a simple answer to “what makes someone a successful advocate?” But there isn’t. The best answer I’ve come up with is empathy and credibility. And even that isn’t exactly right. If you’ve found a better answer I’d love to hear it.