Jarek Jarzębowski
14 minutes
January 23, 2024

From Local to Global: The Growth Story of Google Developer Experts Program with Dawid Ostrowski

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In the dynamic world of technology, developer relations (DevRel) stands at the forefront, acting as a pivotal bridge between cutting-edge innovation and the global community of developers. A recent episode of the Advocu Podcast shed light on this crucial field, focusing on Google's Google Developer Experts (GDE) program. The conversation with David Ostrowski rich in insights and devoid of personal anecdotes, explored the multifaceted challenges and evolution of the GDE program, reflecting the broader changes and trends in DevRel.

Key Takeaways from the Conversation

GDE Program's Evolution and Expansion: The Google Developer Experts program has significantly evolved and expanded. Initially small, it now includes over 1000 professionals in more than 85 countries, emphasizing its success in creating a robust network of technology experts passionate about sharing their knowledge. Although now, significantly bigger than at the beginning, the GDE program is still boutique with a rigid application process, and becoming a Google Developer Expert is a great distinction and achievement.

Scaling Challenges in Developer Relations: Scaling up a developer relations program involves transitioning from basic organizational tools to more sophisticated systems. This includes implementing professional backend processes, activity reporting, codes of conduct, travel support solutions, and other internal processes for efficiency and scale.

The Importance of Demonstrating Internal Value: A critical aspect of managing developer relations programs is demonstrating their value within the organization. Structured reporting and showcasing of impactful activities are essential for highlighting the program's contributions to product development and community engagement.

Emerging Technologies Shaping the Future: The rise of AI, generative AI, and low-code/no-code solutions is poised to significantly influence the future of developer relations and programming. These technologies are expected to make development more accessible and lower entry barriers, potentially transforming the field.

Strategic Advice for DevRel Program Management: Effective DevRel program management requires clear success metrics, long-term planning, adequate resources, and a focus on specialized roles within the team. Starting with a focused program can help in measuring impact and success more effectively.

Conversation with Dawid Ostrowski

The shortened transcript below delves into the intricacies of launching an ambassador program, its progression over time, and the significance of recognizing contributors. For a comprehensive understanding and to grasp the finer details of the discussion, make sure to listen to the entire episode available on Advocu Podcast.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Hello David, and welcome to Advocu Podcast.

Dawid Ostrowski: Hi Jarek, nice to meet you.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Today we will be talking about GDE and your role in growing GDE, the challenges and the bright and not so bright moments. Let's start at the beginning. Please introduce yourself to the listeners - tell us who you are and what you are currently doing.

Dawid Ostrowski: Of course, sure. My name is Dawid Ostrowski. I'm a Program Manager in the Developer Relations Team at Google, based out of Zurich, and I lead the team which is responsible for several developer relations community programs, including the GDE that you mentioned, which stands for Google Developer Experts, which is our most prominent and the biggest developer program we have in our portfolio.

Jarek Jarzębowski: And how did you start? Now you're in Zurich,  but you have started in Poland. What have you been doing? How did your path to Zurich and to your current role look like?

Dawid Ostrowski: I started in Poland almost eleven years ago, more than eleven years ago, but I started at Google in the Developer Relations Team from the beginning. I started as a regional lead. That's the role in our team that's focused on running particular programs in several countries, usually around one location. And what led me to that was my previous involvement in the community as a developer, as a community organizer, as a speaker at events, trainer, and so on. At some point I figured I like technology, but I also like to talk to people about technology. And this is what led me to this position. And within Google, I started, as I mentioned, as a regional lead, then I was a manager of a particular part of the region in Europe. Then I moved to Zurich and I became a leader of the Google Developer Experts program. And now it's a slightly larger portfolio of programs.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Can you tell us a little bit more about the GDE program? I am sure that many of our listeners already know the program, or at least a little bit about the program, but can you share a bit more about it?

Dawid Ostrowski: Sure. The GDE, Google Developer Experts, is a global network of great technologists, great professionals. We have over 1000 professionals in, I think, over 85 countries. They are experienced in Google technology. They are experts, influencers, thought leaders, however you would like to call them. But apart from only being passionate professionals with this expertise, they also enjoy sharing their knowledge with the rest of the community. And I think that this is how I would sum it up.

Jarek Jarzębowski: And how old is the program? 

Dawid Ostrowski: The program is quite old in terms of IT world, which is nothing compared to the human history. But I think the program might be over ten years old at this point. There were several people before me who led the program, but it was relatively small at the very beginning.

Jarek Jarzębowski: When you joined GDE, how big was the program? And has it changed apart from growing? Has the program changed during the years?

Dawid Ostrowski: I was very excited to join the program because I was already part of this community. I was helping with different summits and events. When I got this opportunity, I was very excited. The program was already scaled up. I think at the time when I took it over, there were around 200, 250 GDEs in the program. I don't remember exactly how many countries, maybe 50 or 60. It was already a successful program then. But I would say the biggest change that I see now is we tried to really professionalize a lot of things on the backend. So, the program at the time, those few years ago, was, as we call it, ran out of a spreadsheet and a bunch of forms, which is a great solution when you have several people in the community, but it's completely not a scalable approach at a later stage. So that's probably the biggest change we have introduced over the years.

Jarek Jarzębowski: So how does the professionalizing of such program look like?

Dawid Ostrowski: I mean, you guys play the big part at advocu in this. Basically that was one of the first things that we did because our onboarding process was completely stuck. When we found your solution, we worked with you to heavily customize it towards our needs and that enabled us to move this forward. And then we introduced other, I would say components or features that were heavily tailored towards Google and GDE's needs, things like activity reporting, various dashboards, various APIs and so on.

And we also developed some internal processes which were then more professional, I would say with clear ownership, with clear tooling to support them and so on. I'm talking about things like code of conduct, escalations, I'm talking about things like travel support solutions, all the internal reporting related to all of this. Program management work on the back end, I would say.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Okay, so professionalism on the backend in terms of the program would mean the tool set, the processes. What about the culture?

Dawid Ostrowski: Culture hasn't changed that much. I believe it evolved. Of course it has to evolve. In my opinion, when you have a small program, everything is way more intimate and there is really no need or a reason to formalize too many things. But the moment you are starting to talk to hundreds of people directly, you have to do it at scale. So the culture probably changed a bit, but I want to believe it's still nice experience for everyone. Definitely for us, of course, the times of pandemic, the most recent budget restrictions, I would say that influenced what we can do. So, for instance, we are not able anymore to do these large community summits for our community for various reasons,  at the moment. And that was an important part of our culture. But we tried to compensate in different ways.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Let's get back to the time when you took over the program. You've mentioned that there were around 200-250 members. You have scaled it up, you and your team, of course, you have scaled up to over 1000. So four times bigger in several years. That's quite a huge bump. What were the challenges at the beginning, when there were 250-ish members? and did the challenges change along the way?

Dawid Ostrowski: I can go maybe deeper on the one challenge that I have already mentioned. I remember when I took over the program, we had, I believe, over 300 candidates waiting somewhere in the spreadsheet for any kind of sign and reaction from Google to their candidacy.

Because we vet people heavily, we truly want to check if they have qualities like being truly an expert and having a proven track record of sharing the expertise with the community. So as I mentioned, it wasn't a very scalable solution with all the interviews and checks for application forms and so on. So that was probably the biggest problem at the very beginning. So we solved it at some point. I don't want to repeat too much about introducing other processes, but we did it, we documented it and formalized them and measured them and so on.

But I think over the years what started to be way more important is to show value back to Google internally, how GDEs are active, what kind of value they bring to the community and of course indirectly to Google as well. So that's why we invested a little bit more in different types of reporting, tracking of those activities, presenting them, getting people interested internally and so on. I think that continues to be our main task these days. And when I talk to different people across develop relations team, across different companies, I see a big trend that this is something they are all investing a lot of time.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, I think that one of the reasons that you have grown the program to over 1000 users and it's already around ten years old might be that you can show the value. Because I've seen programs that probably have died or at least are not that active, are not that visible on the web and maybe - this is my guess - they have not shown the value internally. I don't know if you agree with that.

Dawid Ostrowski: I have some observations from my experience. I believe there is like a threshold at some point where it's relatively easy to start a community program in any company and the leadership usually doesn't pay that much attention to its goals or deliverables or things like showing value because the investment is relatively low. Let's say one person from a particular team should start engaging some people and maybe they would go to a few conferences together, organize a meetup and everybody is happy. I think the problems start to emerge where some people start to believe, "oh yeah, this is actually working pretty well. We would like to grow, we would like to formalize, we would like to maybe get more resources." And this is where all the tough questions are being asked for all the right reasons. How does it contribute to our sales, to our marketing, to our product adoption and so on.

And sometimes it's very hard to show it, right? And I think companies make tough decisions of discontinuing programs or not scaling them up and so on. And if you stop investing in those programs, they have a high chance of dying because usually they would last only as long as somebody internally at the company is passionate about them. They move on to another role or to another company. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: You must have answered these questions right to the leadership. So how can you gather data or how can you look at the program to provide answers for these tough questions?

Dawid Ostrowski: I think it's a journey, we are still doing it. I think every year we have to prove the value of the program, which of course makes sense. Our approach is to elevate activities and the right activities that GDEs perform out there in the community to the right people and we do it through different things with different means. On the general level, we share aggregated values of the impact across public speaking, videos, or shared and published content and so on. But what is even more important is to show particular evidence of very interesting activities to the right people from the right teams internally at Google, let's say it's Android or Cloud and so on. And that works as well. I think we are trying this approach of showing high level value. We continue to show the value in those different ways on the aggregated level, on the global level, but also on the incidental evidence-based level of something that is interesting that has happened for a particular product team.

Jarek Jarzębowski: And do you do it in a structured manner or is it like oh, something interesting happened, let's inform the particular team. Or is it like monthly reports? 

Dawid Ostrowski: We work in relations. Of course, we are able to generate monthly reports if people want it, and we have also dashboards, and we are pretty flexible using API to create any dashboard anybody wants really. So that's not a problem. And we do it. For major products, we have something we call the PA POC, product area point of contact. And that person is very deeply engaged with the particular product team, but also with this particular subgroup of GDEs. And that person knows way more and they are way better equipped to kind of surface the right interesting activities at the right moment. And it's very hard for me to say when that's going to happen. It could be a meeting with the VP, it could be a quarterly report, or it could be a newsletter or internal newsletter and they are the best equipped to provide this information.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Can you provide some examples of benefits that, in your opinion, could be the most convincing for product teams, for leadership? Examples that you have used yourself or your team to show the value that you are bringing as a program.

Dawid Ostrowski: It will vary significantly depending on the product and where in the product life cycle a particular product is. So we work very differently with a product that is super well-known and established on the market, like Android, versus something that maybe at some point was very new and fresh and needed very different types of activities, like, let's say Firebase a few years ago. So we provide a very broad menu of possible interactions and channels that we are able to provide value back to those teams. Nothing that you wouldn't expect. With some teams, we focus on feedback or generally feedback-related activities. So our GDEs participate in early access programs, trusted tester programs, developer advisory boards, customer advisory boards. Whatever is the name, whatever is the format, I would put it under the umbrella of Feedback activities, and that's of great benefit.

Directly to product areas, our community members have, in some sense, influence on those products that they really care about and they are passionate about. It's not a rare situation when we would invite GDEs to participate in product roadmap presentations very early and have them influence it and give us new ideas. In the past, we would even source new, fresh ideas for features and other solutions from GDEs as well. Because it's great value to product teams to have really trusted people, people who know their product very well, but still they are external people. So they just don't sit in Mountain View in California. But they are trusted, they are around the world, and they can give a unique perspective from very different markets. So feedback is definitely one thing. We work with various teams across Google and we help them in different ways. We are a source of great stories for different marketing teams, product marketing teams, and general marketing teams as well because our GDEs are really awesome and they truly contribute to the community in some amazing ways. They help people find new jobs, find new careers, establish businesses. So I think it's generally a very positive influence. We have great stories of enablement, of people from underrepresented groups, especially people underrepresented in IT.

Jarek Jarzębowski: A couple of minutes ago you mentioned that such programs or developer relations activities in general should somehow also translate to sales and marketing. Can you assess the level it can play or how big of a part it can play in growth in general?

Dawid Ostrowski: This is very hard to assess, but I think it's really crucial to the success, especially of developer products. So if your target audience for your sales is developers in one way or another, I think having a strong developer relations team and programs is crucial. Sometimes you will find a direct link between sales and particular activity. Especially in smaller programs, you are able to compare the peaks in various traffics, inbound traffic, for instance on different websites, to your activities with your community, for instance being present at particular events and so on.

Of course, for a company as big as Google, it's very hard to see any bumps, right, because the traffic and the user base are so big, yet we sometimes see it. So for instance, when we have a campaign, we see some influence. Sometimes we go to the area of marketing and we try to track some things using more marketing tools, I would say like UTMs or measuring visibility or like measuring visibility in social media and so on. I understand this is indirect, right, but it's one way of showing it. I think that developer relations contribute to sales, it contributes to marketing. But ultimately that's my subjective opinion. Developer relations is about product adoption. So basically getting these developers to try your product and then ultimately use it probably as a paid product or actually whether it's paid or not paid doesn't matter. I would say that much because we know that the active developers' ecosystem contributes significantly to the general success of a particular product or technology. A very good example, I would say, is Android, right?

From our own company. Android wouldn't exist if not for developers. Millions of developers who create apps for Android, right? Of course, Google has successful Android apps, but there are so many thousands or hundreds of thousands of applications created by others. And all those people had to learn about it at some point. They had to not only be aware of it but also actually learn how to create those apps. Then they had to learn about how to create high-quality apps.

And we go in our offering and programs and our activities as far as really helping those developers to be successful, also from the business perspective on those platforms. So we don't stop at just coding and programming excellence, right? We go all the way to how to properly attract users, how to present, let's say, the app in the Google Play, and so on and so on. We collaborate with various programs for startups, for instance. So that's really part of what we do. It's part of a way larger ecosystem for developers. And by developers, I mean it in a very broad sense, not only programmers.

Jarek Jarzębowski: I know that you are thinking a lot about trends and the future of DevRel, and you're involved in the space in general. I have one question regarding the current, let's say technological trends. There are two words that are being spoken in almost every corner of the tech world right now: artificial intelligence. I know that it is really important for you as a company. Do you think that AI and this current revolution, which I see as more connected with generative AI, will somehow impact programs like GDE and DevRel in general?

Dawid Ostrowski: Interesting question. Well, AI starts to be everywhere at the moment. And in the not so long past, things like machine learning were nothing new to us at Google. I think there has been several years already that it's been a priority. So for instance, we have an AI/ML category of GDEs for I don't know how many years, maybe six. So that's something that we've invested in as a program already a long time ago. Whether it's going to help in particular with something, I don't know. I'm observing. We see a lot of cool things around, especially generative AI, which is I think in the areas of, let's say, creativity, graphical production and so on, that influenced a lot of things, a lot of processes, maybe jobs even. We are not quite there yet. The biggest maybe change that I'm observing is all this kind of assistance to coders right in the IDE where we have various solutions from various companies. So I think that has a high potential of changing how programmers will work.

What we are all about in our programs, is those programmers, those developers who do something. So I don't see a direct influence just yet from getting our GDEs to early access programs, to solutions like those from Google, from the area of AI. Not at the moment. I don't see very direct influence in the program management work. I would say more on the backend side. I see some influence, but I don't think those would be unique. We started using some of our internal AI tools like Bard, let's say, to help ourselves with developing presentations, for instance. That's something that I tried personally. But we are not quite there yet to automate some big parts of processes or the program at the moment. But of course, we are very closely observing the area.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, I'm very interested in this area and how it will affect different aspects of our lives and work and careers. Are there any other trends, or technologies that you see that already impact or may impact in the near future the DevRel space?

Dawid Ostrowski: That's an unpopular opinion, especially among developers. But I think I'm still waiting for a way bigger growth of low-code and no-code solutions and environments. I think that they already grabbed part of the market at the moment. But I think even with what we have right now, with the development of AI, it should grow significantly more, I think. I think we are very close to the situation when predictable backend solutions, the boring ones, as you would say, like ERP type of solutions, should be, in my opinion, generated by just describing them to the system. I think we are getting there.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Are there any tools that you are looking at?

Dawid Ostrowski: Well, I'm looking actively right now at AppSheet, which comes from Google. So, sorry for the shameless plug. But you asked me, so this is what I'm looking at right now. That's a very up-to-date question, actually.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Okay. And do you think that we are going towards this, let's say, kind of mythical citizen developer direction, that everyone will be or will have the potential to be a developer and create something that has been for so many years only for the chosen ones?

Dawid Ostrowski: I hope so. I don't think it should be very exclusive. And again, probably that's another unpopular opinion. But I think over the years, if we look at the development of the field, the bar got lower and lower over time. So if we are talking at the very beginning of digital computation, let's say after the Second World War, you would have to be a physicist, probably an electrician, really advanced mathematician to build and run the first computers. And I would say the bar got lower and lower every single time. And I think it will go down even more and more. People will be able to express their will to computers, and the computers will do things for them, whether it's conversational AI or whether it's those assistance that you have with coding and so on. I think I'm still waiting for the moment that we will go to yet another level of abstraction where there will be actually way less code manually written. And for me, it will be another step like between, let's say in the past you would have to manage memory of your program actively and at some point, there were garbage collectors, virtual machines and so on. Basically the whole technology that lets you not worry about this that much. I'm not saying of course you shouldn't think about it, but for the majority of I would say solutions, you don't have to worry that much about it. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: So let's connect it now with our conversation. Do you think the DevRel space in general will grow, shrink because of this trend? Will it grow because more people will come to space? Or will it shrink because the development and developers will not be so exclusive?

Dawid Ostrowski: I think it will grow. Again, very subjective opinion, but I think it will grow because the moment you have more creators, more developers, because the bar is slightly lower over time. And also because you probably have heard the expression that your business will be an IT business. And we see it, in my opinion, in business across the board over the past years. If your business will be an IT business, that means at some point you're going to have your API, you're going to have your SDK, you're going to have your maybe developers marketplace or things like this. And to properly manage all of this, to attract developers, to make them aware, to train them, I would say the best solution is to have a great developer relations team and introduce the right programs at the right time. So I think it should grow. And I see it growing. In the past, when I even started, there were not so many developer relations jobs. I remember I started at Google in 2012. That was the only developer relation job listed in Poland. I think at any given time now, even in Poland, in other countries in Europe, you have tens of opportunities. And I would say there are some areas which are very innovative, very fast to the market, like the whole blockchain crypto area. If you look at this moment, again, I'm based in Europe, so I'm talking about Europe - most of the jobs in DevRel are actually in those areas. Of course, those solutions are very developer-oriented, right? They usually have their own even formalized languages, how you write, let's say, contracts or things like this. So naturally, they would like to address developers. But what I see is it's not anymore this kind of triad of to run a startup - one developer, one product person and one marketing person for a developer-oriented product. Maybe you actually want to push the balance from just marketing into developer relations, I would say this is more successful approach to get developers' attention.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, that's very interesting. And I think we should look closely at it and maybe assess in a few months or years how it will change.

Dawid Ostrowski: I would be interested to go back and check my prediction, although I'm predicting this growth of low code, no code, several years now. So let's see about that. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: Let's just see in a few months or years. But since we are over the half an hour mark, are there any parting tips that you'd like to share with other fellow program managers? DevRel program managers?

Dawid Ostrowski: Sure. So actually, I talk to a lot of people. Sometimes companies reach out to me and ask questions about how to start a team like this or a program like this. If I were to recommend something, first of all, agree with your leadership on what success looks like. Because it's so easy to just start on this vibe of 'let's do something with the community, let's engage them, let's go to events.' I think it's a bit short-sighted. It should be more than that. It should be at least measurable. There's nothing wrong about speaking at events or doing meetups and so on, but it should be measured. The goals should be set and so on. It should also, even at this early stage, try to connect it with some metric that the leadership would truly say: Okay, this is working for us. So that's maybe number one. 

Plan for a long time. I think working with developers, and especially with developer communities, is a long-term game, in my opinion, because engaging people, building relationships takes time. That's counted in months or years. And it's going to be very hard to just spin something up, do the kickoff event, and then see it collapse three months later. And I saw, unfortunately, a lot of examples of programs like that. Get proper resources, and again, it's going to depend on the activities that you choose to do. Get proper tools, get proper processes. There are so many tools, so many simple tools that you can even write yourself. So get proper resources. Get support from the teams that you should be working with. I'm talking about marketing, engineering, product teams. Really depends on your product, on your company. Very often it would be then folks from legal or public policy or even CSR or different teams across the company.

And I would suggest if you don't have resources to start a properly larger team that would take care of several programs, to just start with one program and like one activity and do it really well and focus on it. Unfortunately, way too often I see this kind of attempts of spinning up the developer relation team as a one man band, basically, where we would like to have an advocate and also community manager and also kind of marketing person and the content creator and the speaker at events and so on and so on. And I don't think it always works. First of all, when you shape this team like that, it's going to be very hard to measure which activity really brought the biggest yield. There might be unique people who are able to do all of it, but as in every other field, DevRel is going into specialization as well.

So a great content creator might actually not always be a great speaker on stage or not a great writer might be super in leading feedbacks or actually might be very good at general program management, right? So I'm not saying that the people like this don't exist, but it's harder to get them. So I would focus on a particular activity and hire people for this particular activity.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Great tips, great recommendations, and it was really great speaking to you.

Dawid Ostrowski: Thank you for having me.

Jarek Jarzębowski:  Where should people go to look for you if they want to follow up on this conversation?

Dawid Ostrowski: I'm pretty active on LinkedIn, so that's probably the easiest way to find me, ping me or read one of my articles or posts.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Great. We will link to your profile in the episode details. So thank you very much for today, and let's talk in at least a couple of months and check our predictions. Thank you for the conversation.

Dawid Ostrowski: Thank you.

Google Developer Experts Overview

GDE is a global network of more than 1,000 professionals. Meet experienced Google technology experts, influencers, and thought leaders. Explore the community, get advice, and network – or apply with a GDE or Googler referral.

Google developers program

Key Components

Contribution Mechanics: The GDE program encompasses a wide range of Google technologies, with members showing expertise in areas like Android, Google Cloud, and Machine Learning. Key activities include community engagement through speaking at events, publishing content, mentoring, and contributing to open-source projects. GDEs also actively participate in Google-organized activities, offering feedback on products and features.

Awards & Recognition: Members of the GDE program gain professional growth opportunities, including speaking engagements and early access to Google products and features. The program offers global recognition as an expert in Google technologies, enhancing professional credibility. It also provides networking opportunities with other experts and Google's product teams.

Resources: Google supports GDEs with educational materials, exclusive community access, and direct technical support. GDEs are featured in the GDE directory, boosting their visibility in the tech community. This program fosters a global network of technology leaders passionate about sharing knowledge and contributing to the developer community through Google technologies.

🔗 Further Information

Closing Thoughts

Our exploration into the realm of developer relations, highlights the pivotal role of community and innovation in shaping the future of technology. The growth and evolution of the Google Developer Experts (GDE) program underscore the importance of adapting to changing tech landscapes and emerging trends like AI and low-code/no-code platforms.

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