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Developer advocates act as technical community gardeners. But how do you tend to a garden you can’t go near?

Developer relation folks, those who attend conferences to preach the gospel and help users get more from their tools, most certainly are in that 15% of people who do 70% of the flying. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic sees them grounded for the foreseeable future, deterred even from local meetups. Now they must rethink how they carry out their duties without travel.

“The DevRel move is to go to a conference, go to a meetup — the DevRel move is travel. That door got slammed shut,” said Patrick McFadin, vice president of developer relations at DataStax.

The silver lining in this ensuing period of mandatory work-from-home is that it will create an opportunity not only for developer advocates but for the whole conference-centric tech industry to push the reset button — not only to embrace inclusion and accessibility and to decrease carbon footprint. And to evade DevRel travel burnout.

The good news is folks in developer relations and remote team collaboration are embracing the urgency to completely change the way they — and we — work.

Take Your IRL Community Fully Online

Sarah Thiam, developer relations senior program manager for Microsoft, has been blogging about this topic for about a month now, when her home country of Singapore started feeling the effects of COVID-19. She first started by writing about what happens to community management in a pandemic. As she reconsidered a 2,000-person Azure community event, she realized three facts:

  1. There’s no guidance for how DevRel responds to pandemics. You must reach out to your community.
  2. Not all external communities prioritize in the same way. DevRel isn’t just dictating the actions in its communities, it’s listening to their input too.
  3. Not all internal communities prioritize in the same way. Even different DevReal teams within the same company will differ.

Thiam stresses the importance of psychological safety in community management, especially in a time of crisis.

She wrote: “If you feel unsafe or anxious, some of your community probably already feels that way.”

When deciding what events to continue with, which to move online, and which to cancel, Thaim says it’s important to align with all partners — your venue, your internal team, the local government and NGO recommendations, and attendees.

Most importantly, update often and over-communicate any decision.

But the question isn’t just to have or not to have an in-person event. It’s if it’ll work online. It’s considering the format, the time-to-prep and advertise, and if the speakers are even still available. Remember, speakers are as likely to be affected by a crisis as anyone else, so be kind and check in with them. If they are good to go, hosting some sort of event, even webinar or pre-recorded talk, is a good way to acknowledge their prep work.

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“I try not to cancel because it can be demoralizing to speakers, organizers and even to audiences who perhaps can use some community connection in this time of public panic and isolation. Whatever it is, decide with and not for, your community,” Thiam said.

In just a week, Thiam was able to create three new virtual community meetups. She and her team quickly learned:

  • Have a good moderator to lead the networking side.
  • You’ll have about a 70% drop-out rate, so make sure you make a recording to share.
  • Invite an expert from a different timezone who wouldn’t normally be able to attend a local meetup.
  • More niche topics get higher engagement.
  • Celebrate your carbon savings.

During each wave of the outbreak, Thaim noted, the DevRel community goes through a few phases — watching the news, then watching how many people cancel, and then deciding to hold a virtual forum in place in place of their get-together or cancel altogether. Despite uncertainly of the situation, “Communicate actively with your audience/community to give peace of mind… The psychological stress of them sitting there wondering if the event they signed up for is going to be safe or not,” Thiam wrote, in a Lessons Learned-style guide.

Twilio Developer Evangelist Lizzie Siegle warns that changing to an online environment can sometimes be great and sometimes be filled with errors and delays.

“With so many events being canceled, we’re focusing on how we can best serve and reach developers while we’re all at home and not in large group environments. This means more videos, more livestreams, more webinars, more blog posts, and more talking asynchronously online. We’ve done these things before, it’s just now we’re doing them more and trying to scale them.” Siegle said.

Even before this crisis, she bridged distances and saved miles by giving workshops, talks and demos remotely, including as far as in Pune, India, where she couldn’t see the audience but had a great experience demoing for a room of about 40 developers.

At other times, organizers and the local event space wasn’t set up for live streaming or it was a confusing hybrid setup — where some attendees or presenters are remote and others colocated. Siegle has learned to shorten online talks and workshops to maintain viewer attention and her own energy level.

Changing the DevRel Modus Operandi

DataStax’s McFadin, noted that his company is completely distributed, worldwide 500-person organization. “We’re a distributed database company and we believe in distributed employees as well. ‘Distributed’ means there is no center,” he said, adding that remote implies separation and distance.

DataStax’s two user conferences were set for May in San Diego and London, with 2,000 and 1,000 attendees, respectively. Now the company is investigating virtual options. McFadin joked that there have always been virtual conferences by way of YouTube and that you could binge-watch technical content online for years.

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But he said that “The part that we’re missing and the thing that everyone talks about are the in-person components — the ‘hallway track.’ How do we replace that?”

McFadin continued that “I think this is an interesting opportunity to mash the reset button on inevitable momentum that we’ve built around in-person events.”

Acronyms for the Remote Work Era

  • WFH – Work From Home
  • IRL – In Real Life
  • MO – Modus Operandi
  • F2F – Face to Face. Can be used for IRL or over video. Essential in both settings.
  • TLDR – Too Long, Didn’t Read (But of course you should!)
  • YOLO – You Only Live Once — Stay home and stay healthy, y’all.

He calls “bullshit” on developer relations over-prioritizing massive in-person events. He said that “mostly extroverted DevRel people who love to hang out and drink beer” are deciding that the whole tech community needs to have this type of interaction.

Now there won’t be any more face-to-face (F2F) conferences for at least a few months. Maybe much longer. McFadin calls this a watershed moment we should take advantage of — to learn to be more empathetic.

He said, “There’s a sort of attraction to this job field where I can just sit in front of a computer all day and get my flow and I love it. And then we tell them in order to be successful in your career you need to interact with a ton of people” at week-long mega-conferences like SalesForce’s  Dreamforce, Oracle OpenWorld and Amazon Web Services’ Reinvent.

McFadin says we can take this moment to reach not only the small piece of the pie who are willing and able to travel, but a much bigger audience that’s more inclusive and representational of the broader user base.

He said to achieve this his 15-person DevRel team is focusing on transforming that in-person experience online, examining what makes the Discord gaming community so successful.

“I am hopeful we will get through this as a family, as a community, but I hope we will emerge from this a whole lot better. We are now at a place in human history that we do not need to be in the same place to have a meaningful conversation.” — Patrick McFadin, DataStax

“People are building meaningful connections online with people — World of Warcraft, Second Life, EVE Online. All of these things exist not because the games are really engaging, but because all my friends are there,” McFadin said.

He believes there will be ten times more people to interact within an online fashion — if only they can learn how to connect with them. To replicate the ability to raise your hand and have a one-to-one consultation, a little side discussion, gaining access to an expert that can help you work through a problem and feel personally attended to.

McFadin hopes that this pause will all developer relations to step up to create similar or better online experiences for free.


Moving Online Takes Conscious Effort

At least for the next six months or so, the whole modus operandi of development relations— an annual gathering per continent per community — has to change.

Remote Facilitation Consultant Judy Rees says “Event organizers know how to do a highly participative event in the room, but when asked to do that remotely, just go: ‘I’ve got no idea where to start.’”

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Over the 12 years that she’s been running participatory events online, Rees has discovered that online events aren’t necessarily complex, but they certainly are complicated.

“Don’t underestimate how long it takes to think this stuff through for a particular conference. If you are reducing the conference, you need to think through what’s the content we are going to have and cut. How are we going to present each chunk of content?” she said.

She points to the potential of online events avoiding the extreme exhaustion of having to travel to a conference and engage for a week. With online-first, you can instead have a number of smaller time periods, instead of one period together. There will still be timezone issues, but you can usually find a couple hours of overlap.

“A couple of hours also happens to be a good chunk of time because it gives you enough time in that time box to do some social stuff as well as doing the content you want to do,” Rees said.

“Nobody imagines a 50-minute lecture in the room but you could get away with 40 minutes talking and then questions. Online you have to work harder to hold their attention,” she said.

Rees offers the pattern of seven to ten minutes of content, followed by a small groups activity, and then a debrief. Use Zoom’s Gallery View to see everyone in a single view. Rees says there are two stand-out tools to facilitate such an experience:

  • Zoom — for ease of use and quality of picture, but she says you need to move the people into breakout rooms yourself
  • Video Facilitator — which she says is good for people to move throughout breakout rooms

She said her job becomes like an online world cafe facilitator.

She continued that, with a bigger group, like 100 people, you need facilitators to help your participants get themselves organized, and people to drive the bus in breakout rooms. Plus, you need to have someone to emcee and welcome people. She pointed to Qcon London earlier this month, where every room had at least one AV person, two or more volunteers, and a track host — the same goes for an online environment.

She said that it doesn’t really take more than ten minutes to teach volunteers and facilitators to gain confidence in bits like breakout rooms. Tech isn’t the barrier.

Rees said the real barrier is that “We’ve all had many many years of doing things in the room together so we know how to do it. But people are really just starting to do this online thing.”

And even the experts make mistakes — like breaking the golden rule of one person, one computer setup. She spoke of recently when her husband and business partner joined her for a meeting. She said it completely transformed her online body language and she no longer fit in the “remote box.” See if you can guess which one is which.

Side by side photos of a redhead with a pro looking headset on in front of bookshelves. The first has her to the side gesturing with body slightly turned. The second is her well-centered with hands above to see gestures on screen.

“It’s not a trivial thing to move an existing in-person event online. It takes time, it takes thought, it’s about planning. And it’s really not just about the tools,” Ress said.

Feature image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay.

InApps is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Real.


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As a Senior Tech Enthusiast, I bring a decade of experience to the realm of tech writing, blending deep industry knowledge with a passion for storytelling. With expertise in software development to emerging tech trends like AI and IoT—my articles not only inform but also inspire. My journey in tech writing has been marked by a commitment to accuracy, clarity, and engaging storytelling, making me a trusted voice in the tech community.

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