Jarek Jarzębowski
10 minutes
May 9, 2024

The Art of Building Developer Communities: Lessons from Okta's DevRel Strategy with Kristy Dahlquist

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In the rapidly evolving tech industry, fostering meaningful connections and building robust communities has never been more critical. Developer Relations stands at the forefront of this mission, bridging the gap between companies and the developer communities they serve. This conversation with Kristy Dahlquist, a seasoned professional in managing developer community programs at Okta, sheds light on the intricacies of DevRel and the transformative journey of the Auth0 ambassador program. From transitioning careers to enhancing developer engagement and reimagining community initiatives, Kristy's experiences offer a deep dive into the challenges and triumphs of nurturing a global developer community. Join us as we explore the multifaceted role of DevRel at Okta, the strategic evolution of their ambassador program, and the future of developer relations in the tech landscape.

Key Takeaways from the Conversation

Transferring Skills Across Diverse Sectors: The narrative of moving from the outdoor recreation sector into the tech industry highlights an important lesson in the adaptability and transferability of community engagement and building skills across different fields. This transition underlines the value of diverse experiences in enriching tech community management and developer relations.

Understanding the Heart of Developer Relations: At Okta, Developer Relations is fundamentally about nurturing authentic relationships with the developer community. This approach emphasizes the critical importance of establishing a human connection that transcends digital interfaces and products, aiming to create a more engaged and supportive community ecosystem.

Growth and Evolution in DevRel Team Structure: Okta's Developer Relations team has witnessed significant growth, branching into specialized areas such as content creation, targeted regional outreach, and programming language expertise. This expansion reflects the evolving needs and diversity within the developer community, ensuring tailored and relevant engagement strategies.

Promoting Cross-Team Collaboration within Organizations: The success of Developer Relations programs is heavily reliant on effective collaboration across different company teams. By breaking down silos and encouraging interdisciplinary cooperation, organizations can leverage diverse expertise to support community growth and product development.

Conversation with Kristy Dahlquist

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 Kristy, welcome to the Advocu podcast. This is your first appearance at Advocu Podcast, and maybe not everyone knows you. Let’s start with a short background. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your story?

Kristy Dahlquist: Sure, thanks for having me. I'm Kristy Dahlquist, and I've been with Okta for over three years, and also with DevRel that whole time. I work on the Auth0 side of the business, and I manage developer community programs, which include the Auth0 ambassador program. I'm an identity geek convert. It's hard not to be when you've worked at an identity company for three years. And while I'm not a developer myself, I have dabbled a little bit into coding with JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.

Jarek Jarzębowski: What have you been doing before that?

Kristy Dahlquist: So, prior to working at Okta, I worked in the outdoor recreation field, which doesn't sound like there's a huge amount of relationship between the two. But there's a lot of overlap in building community and also just internationally. So, I worked with international travel and local travel experiences, and so those sorts of bits of communication and community building, while they're not exactly identical, they do kind of overlap in the skill set.

Jarek Jarzębowski: In one of the previous conversations, I have talked with Karin Wolok, and she, before coming to DevRel, has been basically in the music space, organizing parties with Jay-Z and Eminem, and so on. And she said that she has learned quite a lot from this experience with music and now being able to transfer it into DevRel, I believe this is a similar stor.. But four years, that's quite a lot. Can you tell us a little bit more about what developer relations mean to you and to Okta?

Kristy Dahlquist: Developer relations here at Okta means that we want to build relationships with developers in the community. So, the Auth0 side, the customer identity cloud of our product, we were acquired by Okta a couple of years ago. I think we're coming up on almost three years; it's gone by so quickly. It's hard to remember in a way, but being a very developer-focused company, we want to build those human connections back to Auth0. So everyone sees advertisements or the tools or the resources and docs that we have online if you're an Auth0 user, but we want to bring that human element to the product so that we can make sure that we're creating something that developers actually want to use. And so, with what I'm doing at developer relations and the ambassador program, is creating a deeper connection through a community of people who are really passionate about identity and security. And some people might be like, who's passionate about identity and security? But there are developers who actually really love that part of the development process. But it's necessary in everything, you know, even if you just want to build an app, you've got to put identity and security into your implementation. Otherwise, you might have problems down the road, and problems that you don't really want to have.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, definitely. It might not be the sexiest things at all for some people, but definitely, it is one of those that you need to think of, and definitely we need to always think about the security,, especially since there have been some unfortunate stories when some companies have not thought about it that deeply.. So, building relations with the people who are keen on security and authorization. How do you do that? I mean, you have said that you have some developer programs. But how do you build those relations?

Kristy Dahlquist: We have a varied approach to developer relations, and I think for anyone who's been in it for a while, there are so many different functions that a developer advocate is going to have in their role. But on our team, we really focus on educating and guiding developers, and so we're doing that in multiple modes as well. So, a lot of our developer advocates go to conferences, and they give talks, or we'll sponsor a booth at conferences. We also do live streams where we want to engage with our developers that are interested in learning more, and we also provide really great content, resources, and docs, and tools. For us, having developers engage with those things does develop a relationship with us, especially when they give us feedback because we're always looking for real-time users who want to use Auth0 because they don't want to deal with identity or security. We like those developers as well, but we also want to build relationships with developers who maybe want to get more out of what they're doing with using Auth0 in their implementation.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Can you take a step back and tell us a bit more about hHow is developer relations structured at your company? Is it like developer advocates who work with external devs, or external ambassadors who work kind of with the internal developer advocates? 

Kristy Dahlquist: Yeah, so we have a pretty large team now. I think we have about 15 developer advocates and a few other folks in different roles on the team, and it's grown a lot since I first joined back in the fall of 2020. So we have our developer advocates who are in basically three different teams. So we have a content team, and they're creating blog posts and video content on YouTube and our blogs on our website. we also have two developer relations teams that are regionally specific, one for the Americas, North America, Latin America, and then the rest of the world basically with our international DevRel team. And so they focus on their respective regions mostly, but also on their programming languages that they specialize in. We also have a part of the team that helps amplify the efforts of the developer advocates, whether they're in the content or the more outward developer part, where they're going to conferences and interacting with developers in live streams or in real life.

Jarek Jarzębowski: What about your position? Can you tell us a little bit more about what you are doing, what you're responsible for, and maybe a bit about your goals and plans for this year as we are recording at the beginning of January?

Kristy Dahlquist: Yeah, so my position is with developer community programs. I am a program manager, and my main program is the Auth0 ambassador program, and it's been around for a few years. And what I'm doing now is we're actually transforming the program a little bit, and we're relaunching it and opening applications up at the end of February, early March. We're currently updating the landing page. Until that's ready to go, the program's not going to launch, but it's coming soon. It's all in production. You know how it is, how timelines go with updating websites. Sometimes there's a little extra time needed.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Relaunching the program. Exciting times then.

Kristy Dahlquist: I'm really making sure that the application process and all the website updates and the program going forward into this next year look really good and are ready for these new ambassadors to join.

Jarek Jarzębowski: You said that you're preparing for a relaunch. What happened to the program before?

Kristy Dahlquist: So back when the program first started, which was around 2017, the program was mainly for developers who were speaking at conferences The company was much smaller at that time, and we were not part of Okta either. And then, you know, fast forward a couple of years, then the pandemic hit, and speaking became a really challenging way to operate the program, so we expanded it to be kind of a program that accepted all forms of participation that a developer advocate might do. So that was like content creation, answering questions on forums, and by content creation, we mean creating written content, like blog posts on personal blogs or elsewhere. Creating anything that's not consumed live would be basically how we're categorizing content. And we realized that in planning for this next year and the new look of the program, what we really want in the ambassador program is for it to be a community program. And we're not really developing a community as much by having content be at the center of it. While developers may create content if they're giving a talk, that's different because talks are given in a live capacity. So, the new version of the program is going to continue to include a speaker pathway for developers who are out in their community. We're looking for leaders in the developer community. They're giving talks at conferences, meetups, organizing conferences, meetups, workshops, user groups, that sort of thing. And we also want folks in the program who want to connect with Auth0 on a deeper level in terms of giving us feedback and participating in, you know, some beta testing and that sort of thing.

Jarek Jarzębowski: You've mentioned community. This is one of my personal interests, and I'm wondering whether you are also planning to form a community out of these ambassadors or you want these ambassadors to be the hosts of the communities, the community managers in their respective local areas. Do you also want them to be one community?

Kristy Dahlquist: It's kind of both. So we want our ambassadors to help build their own communities because our program is global, so getting together is really tough, even virtually when you're going across so many time zones. So, it's definitely about getting developers to play a role or a bigger role in their communities, but also internally, we want to create a community of Ambassadors who are leading developers in the identity and security space. So, developing relationships with folks on our own team, our own DevRel teams, and also with other folks and other teams across Auth0 and Okta, and amongst themselves as developers. We've created some really cool connections with ambassadors in the program who've been able to support each other at local events that they're doing. And if our own team is present, we always try to make an effort to connect with developers that are attending the same conferences or in the same cities.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Okay, and how do you specifically do that? I mean, one of some of the guests before at Advocu Podcast has mentioned creating Discord servers or like open hours for meetings with the internal team and the ambassadors, or having dedicated open Slack channels. How do you approach it? How do you try to take these totally separate people from all over the world and try to find the glue and make them a community? How do you specifically do it?

Kristy Dahlquist: One thing is we do have a dedicated Slack workspace for the ambassadors. So there are multiple channels for different sorts of things like announcements, celebrating wins, and feedback that we're seeking from them and then I also curate a monthly internal newsletter for ambassadors just to keep them up to date on what's going on in the program or what's going on with Auth0 because as a developer, they have so much information they have to keep up with, with all the updates and changes to technologies. It's a lot to keep up with, so part of this program is helping them stay up-to-date with something that they're very interested in. One other way that we connect with our ambassadors is we do have monthly training or social opportunities for them. Some of these will be more internal, like we might have a happy hour, and we always try to provide some other information about the program and updates. I think communication anywhere is really challenging, and then you make it more challenging by adding people from all over the place and with different levels of commitment and interest in everything that's going on. So, we have these happy hours, and then we also have sessions that we have monthly for training and leveling up their knowledge. Some of that could be participating in some sort of workshop that someone on our team is giving or being part of a more technical talk about maybe a new feature or something else that's coming out down the line with Auth0.
One other way to really get people engaged in a program like an ambassador program is to make participating in the program simpler. Like I said a little earlier, at one point, our program, until very recently, our program had a lot of different ways that ambassadors could contribute to it and be part of it. I think that makes it harder because there's not as much direction. I think one way to get people to participate in a program is to make it easy, is to give them some more firm directions like here's how you participate and not overcomplicate it in any way. When you have infinite options, it's like if you go to the grocery store, there are infinite options for meals and things that you can create. If you don't know what the menu is or what you're trying to make, it can be very overwhelming.

Jarek Jarzębowski: It's an interesting approach, because from one side, I know that there are people who really like public speaking and public appearances, but some of them prefer written content. Yet if you give infinite options for all the people, it will be difficult to actually choose.
How many people do you plan to have in the following year when you are opening the recruitment in February?

Kristy Dahlquist: We are looking to have a hundred ambassadors in the program. If we go over a little bit, that's okay, but we're trying to keep it right around 100.

Jarek Jarzębowski: That's quite a lot. And how many have there been so far?

Kristy Dahlquist: So currently, we have 94. Some of them will not be returning for this next year. We've recently converted it into like a one-year term so that there's some sort of commitment from folks joining the program. So, it's not just like you're an ambassador forever. It's also hard to be in programs for forever for some people. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: A hundred or over 100, or around this number. It's still quite a lot, even though you have had the experience with the program of 90 plus members. What are the main difficulties or challenges in managing such a program? Around a hundred people is quite a lot of people.

Kristy Dahlquist: Um, yeah, so a hundred is a lot, and before, we had a different direction. A couple of years ago we had almost double, and that was actually a little too much. And the scope of how you participate in the program was broad but also wasn't as clearly defined as it will be for this year. It made managing the program pretty difficult a couple of years ago. This year, for managing the program, I think the main challenges are just communicating. One thing that I think is really challenging is, I don't want to annoy the ambassadors in our program and communicate too much in the way where it's like they turn off communications and they don't read anything. But sometimes it's like you see on Twitter, people post and repost and reshare, and there's a reason why that works. You might miss it if the communication comes out at one o'clock in the morning, your time. But if it's posted in the middle of your day, you might see it. So, with a global program, I think communication is just tough on Slack. That's an ongoing issue. I think it's always going to be there, but I always try to figure out new and better ways to communicate with people so that they're getting what they want. Then other challenges that we have, really, just making sure with communication comes just making sure that we're getting the level of engagement from our ambassadors that we want. These programs’re not employee programs, and it's something that developers are doing because they are hopefully genuinely interested in being an ambassador. And so for us, there's that fine balance of making sure that they're feeling supported but that we're also engaging them in a way that helps us. Because if our ambassadors are more engaged, we can do more with the program this year and in future years.

Jarek Jarzębowski: I remember that in one of the recent episodes, I have talked with David Ostrowski from Google, who has been managing Google Developer Experts but also other programs, overseeing other programs as well, and he has mentioned that when he took over, they had almost 250 members. Now they have over 1000, and he has mentioned that there have been challenges like procedural challenges, communication challenges, and until they have incorporated some policies and structures and tools, they were not able to grow the program because it has been basically stuck. And I think that you might have been there as well, when you had double the amount of people, and now having 100 might be manageable because you know what it's like having 200 or over 200, but still, a hundred people is quite challenging. You've also mentioned that people need to qualify for the program if they want to keep on being the ambassadors. How do you track if people are eligible for the program for the recertification? How do you track the activity of the people and their level of involvement in the program?

Kristy Dahlquist: We have a form that they submit for activities. So for this next year, they'll be able to submit a talk. If they did anything speaker-related, like giving a talk at a conference or a live stream, something where there's a live audience component, they'll be able to submit that. We have a requirement that you can't just give a talk on anything. It must have some sort of connection to being an Auth0 ambassador. That could be like, "I did my talk and then I secured it with Auth0," or "I'm an Auth0 ambassador," or maybe the talk is about identity or some sort of security aspect.

There always has to be a connection to being part of the program or to the product, because that's kind of why the program exists. They'll also be able to submit activities like hosting a meetup or a user group. Similar thing: there has to be some sort of connection back to Auth0. And then, we are also going to provide monthly opportunities to participate in feedback or research about product updates or things coming down the pipeline either for Auth0 as a product or for things that our Developer Advocates are working like tools or resources or any sort of microsites that we're looking to build.

Jarek Jarzębowski: It's great to hear that you are tracking it and looking at how active they are, but also giving them some options. Since the program is already quite mature in terms of development, it clearly needs to be effective. How do you quantify how effective it is? What you've seen in terms of business impact, or maybe some ideas gathered from the ambassadors?

Kristy Dahlquist: We like to think of the ambassador program as kind of like mini developer advocates. They're not employees, but they're fans of Auth0, and maybe they're identity geeks as well. We measure the impact of the program in a couple of different ways, like how many developers we’re generating awareness with and how many we're reaching. That reach is calculated through the number of people who attend a talk or some sort of live speaking session that an ambassador is giving. Awareness of Auth0 is a big thing because it gets developers who maybe don't really want to deal with identity and security, but we make it an easy solution for them to implement Auth0, so their app is more secure. We also calculate the success of the program through labs and workshops on our developer center website. The Auth0 Developer Center is where we have all our developer-friendly tools located in one place. The labs and workshops are things that our ambassadors can share with their communities or complete themselves and give us feedback on. Feedback's incredibly important to us, especially from our ambassadors who are really interested in identity and security. We want to make sure that people who use Auth0 are using it in the best way and getting what they want out of it, and it's not frustrating. We also do feedback because we want to catch bugs and get that external perspective so that we have fewer problems down the road and that we're truly helping developers. 

We're measuring our success through feedback implemented, how many developers we're reaching, and through talks and how many we're reaching through meetups and other sorts of community events they're engaged with.

Jarek Jarzębowski: I think that such programs need to be mutually beneficial. The field is called developer relations. The relation means that it is mutually beneficial, and it can't be one-sided. It needs to be beneficial for both parties, and we need to understand it and also try to show it to the stakeholders. I think that it is about relations, building relations and trust, and then we can reap some benefits further down the stream, which are not always so straightforward. Since we have started with your story and background, I would like us to finish with the future. What do you think the future holds for DevRel in general and for DevRel at Okta and Auth0?

Kristy Dahlquist: The future for DevRel, in general, is that any program, to be successful, needs to really figure out how we're providing the best value to the company as a whole. And that's going to change over time. The biggest thing to keep in mind is making sure there's always a connection back to the product and what your company is trying to do. Collaboration is incredibly important in developer relations, so making sure that the team is not isolated from other teams and other developments, whether it's the marketing team or the product team or whatever team you're aligned with, is not getting locked into just being in your own team. But really making sure that you're also generating awareness for being a developer advocate. So, you kind of have to advocate for yourself within the company as a Developer Relations team, to make your coworkers aware of what you can do to amplify the efforts they're making in product development or marketing to make something more marketable to a developer, and not just a company, for example. I think that's really key, finding where developer relations fits and creating those connections internally.

And then, what do I think about the future of DevRel at Okta? That's an interesting question because within Okta now we have our Workforce Identity Cloud, which isn't as developer-focused. But the Customer Identity Cloud, it's a very developer-focused product. So I think what we'll see here is more collaborations across the two teams. But I think with the Customer Identity Cloud, which is known as Auth0 to developers, you'll see us around more. We have a lot going on. I think we're a team that's incredibly motivated, and you'll see a lot more from us out in the communities as we figure out what developers want, because that's what we're here for. We're here to help devs and we want to connect with them and show them that there's more than a login box to Auth0. I mean, I've even created a login box as a JavaScript learner in one of the courses I took, so you know there's a lot more to it. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: Let's leave it today to the developers themselves to find out all the ins and outs of your product. Do you have any other messages or things that you would like to share with the listeners of the podcast?

Kristy Dahlquist: I think one last thing I'd like to share, especially about ambassador-type programs, is that you really need to figure out the size of the program you want and then what goals you want it to drive. Those goals really need to map up to what the top-level goals are in your company so that what you're doing is demonstrating that impact. And also, another note: if your program is really large and you find that you're spending more time on people who aren't active in the program, it's a big red flag that your program needs to be a lot smaller. I found that at one point when our program was around 200, a lot of the work I was doing was focusing on people who maybe were not really that interested in the program, and the criteria to join were all so different at that time, but it was kind of a wake-up call. Like, you know, I need to focus on the people who want to be here, who are interacting and are excited to be part of the program. So, keeping that in mind whenever you're doing anything is like putting the attention mostly onto the people that are motivated and interested in being part of it.

Jarek Jarzębowski: It's a great tip. Not only for ambassador programs but also, I would say, a good tip for life - to focus on the people who genuinely want to have relations with us and not focus too much on all the other people, as we sometimes tend to do. 

Thank you very much, Kristy, for sharing your knowledge and experience. The last thing I think we need to say is how to find you and how to find the application process for all those people who might be interested in joining your program. I know that you have said that the landing page is in progress, but where can people look for it?

Kristy Dahlquist: Yeah, so that's a great question. First, you can find me on LinkedIn at Kristy Dalquist, and just mention you listened to this podcast, so I don't think you're a bot. And then the second thing is if you want to find out more about the ambassador program and how to join, that landing page and the application will be open by the first week of March. You can check out our website. It's auth0.com/ambassadorprogram, and we'll also be making some announcements on our LinkedIn and Twitter sites. So follow Okta, and that'll be a great source for you to get some updated reminders about the application window being open.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Okay, thank you very much. I highly encourage anyone who wants to have a connection with you to find you on LinkedIn, find the information about the program, and learn and grow there. Thank you once again, and I hope we'll talk again.

Kristy Dahlquist: Yeah, thanks for having me. See you around.

Auth0 Ambassador Program Overwiew

Auth0 holds a deep affection for developers, and the act of serving and contributing to the developer community stands as one of the most gratifying endeavors they undertake. Their mission is advocating for developers by disseminating knowledge on topics related to identity and security.

Auth0 Ambassador Program

Key Components

Contribution Mechanism: Through the program, ambassadors enrich the developer community by actively sharing knowledge on identity and security, beyond just technical mastery of Auth0 tools. Their involvement spans from crafting educational materials to engaging directly with the community, showcasing a deep commitment to advocacy.

Awards & Recognition: Ambassadors are celebrated with social media highlights, sponsorship and travel opportunities for events, specialized training, exclusive Auth0 gear, and early access to new features. These acknowledgments are designed to elevate their profile and acknowledge their crucial contributions.

Resources: The program ensures ambassadors are well-supported with a global network of peers and Auth0’s developer relations team, fostering an environment for collaboration and growth. This includes opportunities for showcasing projects, enhancing technical communication skills, and engaging with open-source initiatives.

🔗 Further Information

Closing Thoughts

As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of technology, the significance of DevRel within organizations like Okta becomes increasingly clear. The insights shared from the Auth0 ambassador program highlight a strategic pivot towards more meaningful and impactful community engagement. This evolution underscores the essence of DevRel: fostering genuine connections and facilitating mutual growth between developers and technology providers.

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