Jarek Jarzębowski
9 minutes
June 20, 2024

Not a Swiss Army Knife: Caroline Lewko - CEO at Developer Relations Agency on the Evolving Landscape of DevRel

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Developer programs can leverage a company's growth, but you have to play it cleverly. Having spent over 20 years in the DevRel field, Caroline Lewko has seen it all - and based on her experience, she gives us deep insights into what has already changed, from naming to the approach to the DevRel role within a company. Together with our host, Jacek Jarzębowski, she discusses how the growth of AI and no-code/low-code will impact the Developer Relations area. Check out which mistakes not to make in this changing technological landscape and how to create impactful programs that strengthen the success of your product.

Key Takeaways From the Conversation

Evolution of developer relations: over the past two decades, Developer Relations (DevRel) has grown from a niche activity by a few companies like Microsoft and Adobe to a widely recognized and essential function, especially with the rise of mobile technology.

The importance of naming: How we name and structure DevRel programs significantly impact their perception and effectiveness. Terms like "partner" and "community" carry different legal and operational connotations, especially in North America. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for shaping successful programs.

Strategic segmentation: effective DevRel focuses not on detailed segmentation and demographics but on understanding which developers will succeed with your product. This strategic approach is vital for crafting impactful DevRel programs.

Role of developer advocates: while Developer Advocates often wear many hats, it's essential to recognize that DevRel is a strategic area that requires a diverse set of roles and expertise. It’s not just one role but a multifaceted discipline that demands broad perspectives.

Growth and perception: despite stories of cuts, many companies view DevRel as a critical growth driver and are actively expanding their programs. This growth is driven by the increasing need to support and enable developers, especially as new technologies like AI become integral to products.

Adapting to diverse needs: as businesses evolve into platforms with APIs, app stores, and developer toolsets, there is a growing need for DevRel programs to cater to a diverse audience. This includes not just traditional developers but also business professionals, AI data scientists, and ML engineers, necessitating a broader perspective and varied expertise within DevRel teams.

Fighting misconceptions: a comprehensive DevRel strategy involves multiple roles and experienced professionals who understand the broader impact of their work. It's essential for DevRel veterans to educate organizations on the strategic importance of these roles and advocate for proper resourcing and support.

Conversation with Caroline Lewko

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, Caroline. It's nice to have you on the Advocu podcast. How are you?

Caroline Lewko: I'm great. Thanks so much for having me today.

Jarek Jarzębowski: We have just been discussing DevRel’s ups and downs. It probably is during the down phase at the moment, but you have seen both the ups and downs during the years. How long have you been in the field?

Caroline Lewko: That's a really good question. I think there's always the point of knowing when you're officially in DevRel and when you're in DevRel but you don't know it. I would say I started unofficially in DevRel around the year 2000, so it's been a while. But it was in 2006, after I became officially part of Developer Relations, that I  finally realized that I've been building technical communities and supporting some of the different Developer Relations activities.

Jarek Jarzębowski: 20 years is a long time, and I think it might not have been the same and viewed the same way as it is right now. So, how has it changed? How was it at the beginning and how it progressed over the years?

Caroline Lewko: There’s definitely been changes in lots of different ways. Even when I started, over twenty years ago, there were companies that were doing Developer Relations. There just weren't a lot of them. In the early days, we had major players like Microsoft and Adobe, and later, in the mobile space, companies like PalmSource with Developer Relations programs, many of these are now forgotten. So it was much smaller and there was less awareness of it back then. 

Interestingly enough, today we're still grappling with some of the terms that we were grappling with back then. I remember an operator with a developer program debating whether to name it a partner program or a partner community. Back then, the term "Developer Relations" gained traction, particularly in how companies structured their programs, often referred to as Developer Relations programs or developer programs.

But otherwise, there were a lot of changes in terms of the type of companies that participated and their number. The types of jobs and job roles has really expanded. What also changed was the knowledge and appreciation of how Developer Relations does contribute to the company’s success and ROI. So, that's a lot to unpack.

Jarek Jarzębowski: A lot indeed. I would like to firstly focus on the naming of the programs because I believe that how you label things impacts how people perceive and engage with them. If you name someone a partner, it's totally different than calling them an ambassador or a champion.

Caroline Lewko: Good point.

Jarek Jarzębowski: I've been talking about it with Luca Bohholz in one of the previous episodes. We've been talking about the differences of the field, whether you call the program a star, a champion program, or a super-user program, and so on. Do you also think that a company can shape the relationship with developers by naming the program? 

Caroline Lewko: Yeah, naming something definitely shapes how something is viewed. I think it's important to think about the different components of a Developer Relations program. At the start of it, Developer Relations is about how we help developers. Now, when we talk about ambassador programs, that's really a subset of Developer Relations. You've got to already have the community before you can have an ambassador program. 

From a legal perspective, especially in the US and Canada, a partner is a very specific legal term, whereas a community or a program is something different. Typically, when larger companies discuss partners, these relationships often entail specific legal agreements. They have some programs together. They're going to market together. Their technologies are working together. Whereas, from a developer program perspective, they certainly could be a partner, but you definitely want them to use your product, your tool, to create something new.

Jarek Jarzębowski: The second thing that you touched upon was the value of the programs, the KPIs, and the ROIs. Do you think that looking differently at these programs - however we structure them, however we call them - can impact the potential of bringing value back to the company?

Caroline Lewko: Sure, it absolutely makes a difference if you're seeing yourself as a part of what makes a business successful. Certainly, when we're in Developer Relations or Community Relations, we're thinking about Advocacy, we're thinking about Developer Evangelism. 

We definitely need to focus on our user and that customer community, which is developers. But we also have to remember that we're working for companies. Let's take open source out of this conversation. But if when working for companies, these companies have to make money or they won't be in business. So when you're thinking about how to support your community, we've got to be realistic about that.You should really ask yourself: is this in the best interest of the company? And if it's not aligned, something's going to give. Those are often the jobs that we see being eliminated because the folks that are running those communities haven't been able to understand how they are driving value for the company. You can do both. You can do both really well. But let's not be naive about what business is all about.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Definitely, business is about money and we cannot change it. This is how the world is structured, and operating in it, we have to abide by its rules. Does it mean then, that a DevRel manager needs to consider return on investment and value to the company from the start to create a successful long-term program and developer experiences? Or is it also possible to only focus first on the experience of the developers and then think about how to drive or create value from there? You know, this again is probably a chicken and egg question. But maybe you have some thoughts on that as well.

Caroline Lewko: You know, when you come in to build a program, you have to help a developer learn to use some tools. What you're really doing is helping somebody be successful by creating another product. It’s in your best interest to help that developer, your community, to achieve success. 

But what kind of developer? If you step back and look at our segmentation model from the Developer Relations book, you'll see that you don't need to focus too much on segmentation, developer personas, or their demographics like age. What you need to understand is what kind of developer is going to be successful with your product. What kind of tooling and knowledge is expected? Is there a particular vertical that they might be more successful in? 

Understanding the segment that will succeed with your product is key to supporting their success. And if the developer is successful, they're going to continue to buy your product, so that just filters right back. It’s a symbiotic relationship: they buy more products, and you are able to make your product more successful, adding some of the different features or functions that further contribute to its success. Do you need to understand that company value proposition from the beginning? Yes, absolutely. It's all part of being strategic and coming up with a great development plan for your program.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Considering the current job market with many people seeking employment, do you think the field has overlooked how to effectively bring value to the company? And that this is why we see so many DevRel professionals, even those quite well-known in the field, out of jobs?

Caroline Lewko: Yeah, I would say so. There has been some misalignment in terms of how somebody can add that value, and I think it comes from a couple of different places. Often, if a Developer Relations role is really junior, they might not have as much insight as they should into company's strategic objectives. If they want to be successful, they probably need to discover those. 

However, if you're in a junior role, often you're in an IC role. You're just so focused on doing what you think your job is or what you're being told to do. Also, a lot of companies don't understand Developer Relations enough, and think, "Okay, great, I've got this tool, this API, whatever, for developers. I need to hire somebody to help me market to them, support them. I need to hire an evangelist or I need to hire a Developer Advocate." And we'd like to say, "Well, stop there for a minute. If you want somebody to be strategic, go and talk at conferences and support the developers, but also write documentation, that's too much for one role.” 

We say that “even though a Developer Advocate is often a Swiss Army Knife, they shouldn't be one." So many companies limit themselves to hiring just one person, often a junior, who doesn't have neither the skillset or the knowledge to really think about their role as a big picture, nor the budget or the necessary support. I believe that it's crucial for Developer Relations professionals, especially for veterans like us, to emphasize its strategic significance within organizations, and that it's not just one role.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, I have seen a meme about marketing a few days ago. There was this picture of a Swiss Army Knife with all the tools open and named, and the whole Swiss Army Knife was content marketing, and the tools were copywriting, analytics, etc.. The social media post was about how some people mix those terms, and I think it also happens in the Dev world. 

If you are a DevRel specialist or DevRel professional, you should be able to write content, speak at conferences, create videos, and so on. And it might not be the best way to approach this field because you cannot be all the tools in this Swiss Army Knife and you should probably specialize if you want to bring specific value. But also, if you want to bring strategic value, you need to at least somehow understand all these fields. If I'm not mistaken, you have been into marketing before coming to DevRel. Do you think that your marketing experience has given you this ability to think and see this whole field more strategically?

Caroline Lewko: You know, I've come from a marketing and strategy background, so I'll always like to see the big picture and think about how frameworks and strategies work. I think that's helped. But, you know, if we go back to some of these things, again, Developer Relations isn't a single role. It's not only about Developer Advocacy. And if you take a look at the state of Developer Relations survey we just did, in the 2023 report, what are some of the sample job titles there? Certainly, as Developer Advocates, there's, Directors of Developer Relations, Developer DevRel Engineers and Senior Principal Engineers in Developer Relations, Developer Relations Marketers, Head of Developer Experience. There are so many different roles. 

So, let's keep telling that story. It isn't just that one role. If you take a look at marketing or engineering and say, "Well, I'm an engineer, I'm in software," what does that mean? What kind of software engineer are you? There's lots of different roles and technologies that you need to know, different levels of management and reporting. 

The same thing in marketing: "I'm in marketing." Great. Do you do brand marketing? Are you an SEO expert? Are you digital marketing? Or what? Developer Relations is exactly the same. There are lots of different roles, and we need to tell the stories about what those roles are. Also, position our Developer Relations programs to be successful because it takes more than one person.

Jarek Jarzębowski: But the thing is, is there a place for big DevRel departments? Currently we are seeing that the budgets are getting smaller and smaller. Do you think that there is a place for different roles?

Caroline Lewko: Yes and no. I think you're hearing the stories about the cuts more than those of growth. You know, from what we're hearing and even seeing, and, again, based on the fall edition of the Developer Relations survey, more people were growing their programs than cutting them. And according to folks we've spoken with, Developer Relations is perceived as a crucial driver of growth, and they are actively expanding these programs in response to the recognized demand. 

Developers serve as both users and influencers who require support. With the rise of APIs, app stores, and various developer toolsets, businesses are increasingly reliant on developer support programs. We're seeing that part of the industry growing a lot. I'm very bullish about it all. I think there's a lot of growth, there's a lot more realization of what Developer Relations is and what it can do. More jobs, too. It isn't just about the documentation anymore, there's a whole range of developer education happening, people are developing courses and more webinars and more tutorials. We're recognizing the neurodiversity and sort of diversity in general. I think COVID helped us understand that we just don't have to show up for an event in San Francisco every year to truly be a program and work with our communities. That's fabulous.

You know, marketing is growing in a way of how do you support and find developers. Now we're taking a look at it from the Developer Success perspective. It's like, okay, great, they're customers. How do we work with them? How do we make them ambassadors, or how do we talk to them on a monthly or quarterly basis to find out what's working and how we can make those updates to the products and the programs? I see that, and it's great.I see more and more teams working together.

Jarek Jarzębowski: I really see that you are truly excited by this state of affairs and also the field, which is really great. You have mentioned that there are companies that are growing, and they are growing their DevRel initiatives. Definitely, despide the growth of Web3 and DevReel in Web3 area, AI has lately taken the trend. Do you think AI companies are or will be prioritizing Developer Relations (DevRel) similar to how Web3 and traditional software companies have been doing? Or is it somehow different?

Caroline Lewko: It's really different. I really liked what Ben Evans did in his last report. He always puts out an annual report every year, and he's got a great visual about how things shift in technology. Take the shift within mobile and smartphones - do we even think about picking up a phone and using it to do all the different activities anymore? It’s the same with AI. Every company will become an AI company. 

Certainly, there are some companies providing the technology behind it, like OpenAI, which solely focuses on AI. However, many companies are integrating AI into their operations and learning to work with models or specific pieces of technology. What they're starting to do now, and what we should consider from a Developer Relations, marketing, and DX perspective, is turning to trusted sources to learn about AI advancements in that particular technology. As Developer Relations programs, since everyone is integrating AI, we must ensure we effectively communicate, educate, and support developers in embracing and adding AI components and experiences to their apps and technologies.

It's going to be so exciting, and I'll tell you what I think is really neat too. When I came into the mobile space, I did not see the edges of it, and I just knew it was going to be big. You know, I couldn't certainly have predicted what would have happened with it. With AI today, again, we cannot see the edges. It’s just way larger and more expansive and is going to influence us in way more interesting and yet-to-be-determined ways. 

We just have to wait for that human imagination to play out and see how AI plays out as well. It's going to be cool, and we just all need to be aware of it and think about how we support our developers in that. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, these are definitely exciting times in because of AI. Recently, I was talking with David Ostrowski from Google, and he also said that one other trend that he's looking at is the no-code/low-code trend. Do you also think that it will somehow influence the DevRel space, or is it not that important from your perspective?

Caroline Lewko: It's already influencing the DevRel space. Every time we take some leaps in technology, there are easier ways to develop. So, the no-code movement is coming, driven by companies simplifying development with different layers of technology, and AI is making this possible. Look at GitHub.and Copilot projects, where some of that coding's already being written. Developers are using it, and that trend will only strengthen - we need to be prepared for that too.

Jarek Jarzębowski: I wonder if this shift will mean more or less DevRel, considering that non-developers, like business people, will start using no-code/low-code tools and may not see themselves as traditional developers.

Caroline Lewko: I don't know. We'll have to wait and see what happens. I think that's already happening. Take a look at something like HubSpot. For many general business people, you can easily click one link here and another link there. Suddenly, you're able to get your stream from wherever it is. It's probably called more customer programs or builder programs. 

We're still going to have our Developer Relations programs for those true coding areas, and things will just change and expand, I think. You’ll have to do what's right for your particular business.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Okay, so let's get back to the state of DevRel. In the report you've created, are there any other trends in the State of DevRel that might not be visible yet but could emerge in the coming months or years? And I know it's a difficult question...

Caroline Lewko: Do you want me to get my crystal ball out? Is that what you're asking?

Jarek Jarzębowski: Yeah, kind of. Let's try some guesswork..

Caroline Lewko: Um, yeah, I have to get the mind going. You know, some of those things I said, the growth in titles programs, in what they're doing and offering, I think that's really cool. I think we're going to see more around the education space. Educating is not easy - you have to understand how different people learn, and we're seeing different types of people coming into DevRel. We need some other skill sets coming in to support how these programs are working and growing. 

A lot of us remember Steve Ballmer with his developers, developers, developers and Microsoft finally re-embracing them. I'm seeing a lot more companies, older ones, whether it's fintech or semiconductors, are now saying we're going to become a developer-first company. We finally understand that to grow, we need to embrace the builders and the users rather than just talking BizDev to BizDev on these higher levels. In order to do that, our technology needs to shift, and the way we embrace this group of developers needs to change as well. 

We're seeing that across the board where Developers are recognized as these true users, true influencers, true decision-makers. Often, the deal is made up here and the developer needs to use it down here. 

We all know that companies often see churn a couple of years later because someone will come to the developers and say, "We just bought this, you need to use it now, go figure it out." A developer looks at this, "This is so complicated, and their code is crap, I don't even want to use it." They're forced to use it, they don't use it well, and they don't grow with it. Then, one or two years later when the subscription or the contract is due, they churn because they weren't able to use it in the first place. But that’s changing. People are recognizing that you can't force somebody to use something difficult to use, and that's good. 

Yeah, I don't know if I've got any more crystal balls. Besides that, we're really going to have to be mindful of what's happening in AI, and everybody knows that.

Jarek Jarzębowski: From what you're saying, it seems there will be a lot of space for DevRel because probably, this shift will continue. We need more people in the companies who explicitly think about making the customers, the users, more successful. The DevRel space will probably grow, and as you have mentioned, we probably need more broad perspectives to be able to navigate this shift. Different people will use our products and services, so we need different perspectives to be able to cater to them.

Caroline Lewko: You do a very good job of summing things up.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Thank you. We will be wrapping things up soon. Do you have any parting thoughts for fellow DevRels and our listeners?

Caroline Lewko: Read my book, mine, and James Parton's book. It will give you a good perspective on Developer Relations from a high level to detail and some great frameworks to follow. Do take a look at the stateofdeveloperrelations.com and the 2023 report. I think there's lots of great information there that will give you a big picture of the DevRel space and how much it is growing. Be humble. There's always so much to learn for this practice and for technology, and you know, sort of being kind to everybody.

Jarek Jarzębowski: So we'll definitely link to all the materials, the state of DevRel, your book, and also your socials so that people who might be interested can find you if they haven't already because you are quite well known in the field. Thank you very much for sharing your experience and knowledge and also thank you very much for taking the crystal ball out and trying to see the future with us.

Caroline Lewko: Thanks for your time. Really appreciate it.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Great, thank you!

About Caroline Lewko

Working in the mobile and tech sector since 1995, Caroline Lewko is a visionary who has understood the importance of developers from the very start. She connects the dots, bridging people and building communities, a mission she has been fulfilling for as long as she can remember. 

Being a part of the Developer Relations area since its beginnings in the 90s, she is a treasure trove of knowledge regarding the evolution of developer programs and the nuances of the field. Her experience includes multiple consulting, marketing, and CEO roles. The Co-Founder of DevRel.Agency, providing developer-led growth strategies, she also works with Vancouver-based Revere Communications, leading a Developer Relations team.

Closing thoughts

Developer Relations (DevRel) has come a long way in the last twenty years, moving from something on the sidelines to a crucial part of business strategy. Despite its ups and downs, the importance of DevRel in driving growth is undeniable, especially as the tech landscape keeps changing. With businesses diving into AI and other new tech, DevRel's role in fostering teamwork and creativity is more crucial than ever. It's up to DevRel pros to keep pushing for the recognition and resources they need to keep making waves.

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