Jarek Jarzębowski
12 minutes
February 12, 2024

The Rhythm of DevRel: Karin Wolok on Building Tech Communities

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In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, the role of Developer Relations (DevRel) has become a focal point for discussion among tech communities. In a recent conversation host Jarek Jarzębowski welcomed Karin Wolok, a seasoned DevRel professional with a unique background that bridges the music industry and the tech world. Karin's journey from organizing high-profile events with celebrities to spearheading community engagement initiatives in the tech space offers invaluable insights into the parallels between entertainment marketing and developer relations.

Key Takeaways from the Conversation

Cross-Industry Skill Application: The unique journey from the music industry to developer relations (DevRel) exemplifies how skills can be effectively transferred across vastly different sectors. Experience in marketing and sponsorship for high-profile musicians laid a foundational understanding of awareness, audience engagement, and hype-building, which are equally crucial in the realm of DevRel.

Core Mission of Developer Advocacy: The discussion illuminates the evolving landscape of developer advocacy, particularly its entanglement with marketing and sales goals. It brings to light the challenge of staying true to DevRel's primary aim—fostering genuine community ties and raising product awareness—while navigating the pressure to contribute to sales metrics.

Encouraging Active Community Participation: Insights into motivating community involvement highlight the effectiveness of non-monetary incentives such as acknowledgment, gratitude, and opportunities for community members to distinguish themselves. These strategies underscore the importance of making individuals feel valued and elite within their community.

Conversation with Karin Wolok

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, Karin, and welcome to the Advocu Podcast. I have seen you first at DevRelCon in Prague last year, you have been on stage speaking about your experience in DevRel.

Karin Wolok: Thank you for having me. My name is Karin. It looks like some people mispronounce it as Karen, but it's Karin. Even though I don't always correct people.  If I correct you, that means I expect that we're going to have a long-term relationship. So that's how you know where you fit into my bucket.

My background is a little untraditional in terms of how I got into DevRel. I think a lot of people f come from an engineering background and then write things and fall into developer relations. I actually came from the music industry, so I did marketing and sponsorship development for Eminem and 50 Cent and these big rappers. I would literally go to parties with Rihanna and Jay Z. That was my world, and I somehow went from that to concerts and then live shows. And then I went to Developer Relations. Ryan Boyd, at the time, he was the head of DevRel at Neo4j, ,ow, he's one of the founders of Mother Duck, he was the one who gave me my first kind of entrance into developer relations.

I was working with developer communities before that, with Data Science Meetups and things like that. So, I had gotten involved in the tech world, but that was my entry into it. And there's actually a lot of commonalities between entertainment marketing and sponsorship development, what I was doing there, and developer relations. In a weird way, I think it's kind of one of those things. A lot of the Developer Relations I do is based on awareness. And that's a lot of what I was doing in the music industry was like awareness. Like, how could people find out about this stuff

Seeding the market, building hype, things like that. Now, I have my own consulting company doing DevRel, kind of out of the box. So, if there's a company that needs developer relations services, I provide it. The strategy and engineers to produce content, speak at conferences, things like that. And that's been since October of last year. It's super cool. I really enjoy the consulting side of things. It was an accident how I ended up getting into it.

Jarek Jarzębowski: That's really interesting. this switch from the music industry to DevRel and it being connected, I mean, this is quite unexpected, I think, at least it is for me and I believe for our listeners. So, can you tell us three main things that you have learned in the music industry and you have used in DevRel, and how they connect?

Karin Wolok: Sure. Okay, this is an unexpected question, so I'll have to think about it a little bit. And the first one that I'm thinking about is there were two things that I was doing in music primarily when I kind of started my career. The first one was like, releases of new music. So, like, Eminem was coming out with a new album or whatever, and we needed to promote this album and get people to know about it and talk about whatever.. So that's one, and then I was also doing sponsorship development. Basically, let's say Eminem was doing an after-party for one of his shows or whatever, and we wanted to say, T-Mobile presents the Eminem official after-party or whatever. I would create the sponsorship proposals and then try to pitch it to sponsors to get their brand placed there and to get in front of the consumers, like Eminem's audience. 

So that was kind of what I was doing. One commonality was when there were new releases, a lot of what we do is we would try to get the new records in the hands of influencers or people who had a larger following, right? DJs and media people, bloggers, things like that, those were the people who we would focus on getting the records to. It wasn't as much focused on mass promotion. So that was like one thing where I think it's also aligned with developer relations. You try to find where the audience exists, what they read, where they go  and then align your content with that. And then another thing that kind of aligns is kind of like developer relations. When you're talking about the awareness side of things, it has to be very organic, right? You're not trying to push things and you're not trying to sell things. You're building a reputation and how people feel about your brand. Do they like you? Do they trust you? Those are the things you're actually building. And that was a lot of what we were doing with sponsorship development. Like T-Mobile, for example, or any of these beverage companies or whoever was sponsoring something, it was usually beverage-related or any kind of consumer, you know, like Monster Energy Drinks was like a big sponsor of a lot of stuff, Red Bull, things like that. They're not necessarily getting immediate sales from that, right? But they're associating with something that you know and trust. And when you know and trust it, you're more likely to know and trust this brand.

I was taught once in the advertising space, there could be two kids' gaming websites. You have one that's like Disney.com where kids can go and play some games and then you have some other random one with some random URL or whatever. You could see the same ad on both of those sites. And you're going to trust the ad on Disney more than you're going to trust the ad on this random site, right? So you might get more impressions on the ad on the random site. But your trust factor and how people feel about your brand is going to be stronger if you're promoting on Disney.com. That association can build trust and reliability. Like people trust you more because of that. So that was like another thing that was a commonality, and I think there's probably some commonality around building hype.

So when you get people talking about you like that, that's another thing. Because one thing I learned was it only takes two sources, two disconnected sources. When you hear about it from two separate places, you feel like you've heard about it everywhere. It only takes like, I could talk to you about something and then you hear about something else. You're like, oh, Karin works with this company Rising Wave or whatever. And then you hear about it somewhere else and you're like, oh my god, I'm hearing about Rising Wave everywhere. Only two times that are disconnected. And that's like another thing that I also learned about that I think about a lot. How can you distribute your content enough to be able to hit people from two different places, the same kind of people? So I think those are probably three. That was like a long-winded answer, but complicated.

Jarek Jarzębowski: No, it was very interesting. I mean, also very insightful. I think that DevRel can draw a lot from the marketing perspective and also from the sales perspective, but you need to structure it often a bit differently so that it relates better to the audience, which is developers. And the term audience is a gateway to the second question, because we can speak about audience, we can speak about clients, users, we can speak about community, and we can speak about champions or ambassadors. In the DevRel space, we often speak about those big words like community, like ambassadors. And I think that you don't hear these words in consumer brands that often, or at least in a different perspective. Do you see community and ambassador programs or ambassadors in general as an important part of DevRel?

Karin Wolok: I do. I think First of all, there are champions for many, many products and talents and things like that. So it actually exists everywhere. And there's a lot of even influencer marketing and things like that. There's a book by Steve Stout, he's a music executive, "The Tanning of America." It's about how products just became viral, like people wearing certain things, and they're representing these brands and all this kind of stuff. It exists everywhere. Not only that, people associate themselves with brands as representative of who they are. And I think that's also similar in terms of champions and things like that. They start associating themselves with it becomes a part of who they are. We talked about MacBooks earlier. Are you a MacBook user? Okay, so most people, if they have an iPhone, they're like, I'm an iPhone guy, or girl, I'm an iPhone guy. If you have an android, you're like, oh, I'm an android girl. That's it. I'm an android girl. What does that mean, that you're an Android person? What does that mean? You're actually just a user of an Android product. You're not an Android person, but they associate who they are with these products. And I think that that's kind of where it starts, you know? Apple has a reputation of like, when you're an Apple user, this is what it means. You're probably on the top of technology, things synced up, and you're a very good communicator, blah blah blah. That's like the reputation of what Apple might be representative of. So I think there are commonalities there in terms of champions and things like that. They exist everywhere. I do think it's important to have it. I think a lot of times it happens organically. People love something, and then they want to represent the brand because of what it means about them.

Jarek Jarzębowski: You can be a Pepsi guy or a Coca-Cola guy - sure. Is it different from being a particular tech guy? Or are these areas so similar that you can learn from the consumer product perspective and use it in the DevRel space?

Karin Wolok: That's a great question. Yes, I think they're very different because, first of all, if you're talking about consumer products like basic things like Pepsi, Coke, those are very lightweight. And if you have differences with your friends in taste, it's not a big deal. But I think with technology, everybody wants to use the stuff that's great and amazing. And I think having champions is probably a lot more important in the tech space than it is in your consumer beverage industry or something like that. Even like technology and tools. When I think about Apple versus Android, even just as simple as that, I think that's more aligned with the importance of having champions. I only have an Apple phone because my boyfriend peer pressured me to get an Apple.

I swear I literally just got an Apple phone in March and still, I'm an Android person. Sorry to all the Apple people. Like, Apple's a good phone, but I still love my Android more. This is my compromise. Like my sacrifice to the relationship is I use an Apple, but I was peer pressured into it. I don't think it's exactly similar to tech products, but I do think there's a need for having champions, and there are a lot of reasons too.

I think with technology products, they're really complex. So people do a lot of research, and the research online has to point in the direction of your tech product. And if you have champions that are really evangelizing your product and saying, like, this is amazing, this is what you need to use, and they're writing blog posts and making comparisons that are organic and not biased, I think that's the key to building that reputation inside of the industry.

So it's not even necessarily with your champions having direct contact with their network. It goes way beyond, like, if I'm comparing toothbrushes, Oral B versus Philips electric toothbrushes. If I see it on Oral B's website, I'm not going to trust it. But if I see some random blogger that goes into deep detail of how the bristles work and whatever, and he's like, "Oh, these bristles get deeper inside your gums," I'm like, okay, that makes sense. I'm going to listen to this random person. By the way, this random person might be a total placement by Oral B because they know that people are going to Google these things and make a comparison. And that's like how people make their purchasing decisions. And people do a lot of research. But that is, I think, why it's important to have those champions. They kind of reiterate the strength of your product. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: Okay,. So if it is important, if it is that important, how should you start approaching this? Should it be organic? Or can you somehow stimulate the champions? Let's say that you are responsible for DevRel in a new company, it has a good product. What would you do to get to this point of having champions? How would you start?

Karin Wolok: Yeah, I think it depends on where you are, like what stage you are at. Because I think a lot of times smaller companies want to start Champion Programs and it's not necessarily the right time. Do I think you need to have Champions and recognize them and find ways for them to speak up and give them a platform for their voice and help them accelerate it? Yes, 100%. Every tech company should be doing that. But there's a difference between that and having a formal Champion Program. Formal Champion programs are like the ones that have a name, Microsoft MVPs or whatever, and they're very structured versus for early-stage companies. You might want something that looks like a Champion program but isn't necessarily labeled as one. So you want to build a foundation for people to be able to share their experiences and their voice and whatever it is. Like whatever kind of content. Maybe they're a user of the product. They want to talk about what their company is doing with it. You want to build a foundation for them to emulate something that would be a Champion Program without actually labeling it as such. Because if you don't have a lot of Champions, it's going to look sad. You can't have five Champions listed on your site. It just doesn't look good. So until you grow that, I think you kind of could do something that emulates it without formalizing it. So you identify somebody in your community who's active. It could be anything. They ask a lot of questions, or they might answer somebody else's questions or something like that. And you try to get that person to do a little bit more and then help them accelerate that. You might find that one user is asking questions about how they're tying your product in with another product, MongoDB or whatever. So you might say, oh, you know what? This is an opportunity for us to connect with MongoDB. And you reach out to that person and you say, hey, would you be interested in talking about your project? And then you reach out to MongoDB and you say, hey, we have a community member who is interested in talking about what they're building with our product and you guys or whatever. And then you figure out how to collaborate on things together. And then you have your Champion who's going to present on it. And then you still give them Swag and whatever. Not a formal Champion program, but you're still doing things like helping them get their voice out there. You're providing them with swag and all these other little things that are vital to the success of a Champion program. Does that make sense?

Jarek Jarzębowski: You've mentioned that we should look for a person who is already kind of involved in the community or in our product somehow. We should look for someone who is asking questions, answering questions. But let's take a step backward. What makes people interested enough, engaged enough, motivated enough to do it in the first place? From your perspective, what makes them so?

Karin Wolok: There's a really good book called Drive by Daniel Pink that talks about motivation. I think that's like a good book that I think people might want to check out if they're interested in really understanding. There's also other books called 1001 Ways to Motivate Your Employees. And you're not trying to necessarily motivate your employees, but the thought process behind it is very similar. I think doing monetary compensation can actually be detrimental.There's been studies on that. If kids like to draw, when you give them a reward, like money, they actually stop drawing. Versus hanging their pictures on a wall or recognizing them for, like, wow, look at these amazing pictures, or maybe doing like, an art show or whatever. So thinking about those types of things. I think there's a few different things that I just try to consistently think about. One is gratitude, and then the other one is recognition. And then the third one is some kind of feeling of leveling up. So making them feel like they're superior to other people in the community, it's a feeling, right? You don't necessarily have to do that. That's why they label people as like, experts and MVPs and champions and all this kind of stuff, because it's supposed to make you an elite group. So figuring out how to make them feel a little bit more elite, so you could say, this is one of our most engaged users. I think you'd have to kind of play around with some words on what you would label them if you're not making a formal champion program. But gratitude is huge. You have to be like, wow, thank you so much. And then you have to recognize them where you are. Just like, look at this amazing person, what a great job that they did. And this is all like the same type of things that motivate your employees, right? I remember when I was working with Star Tree, our CEO used to do these things from the very beginning. I was employee 13, and I remember we used to do all-hands meetings every week. And every week, they'd also have a demo of what someone was working on internally, like any part of the product or whatever. They would just kind of show it off. And he would sit there and he would be Wow, this is really cool. He would say, this is really cool. This is really cool. This is really cool. And I remember thinking about it, I was like, that's gotta be such a great motivator. When someone just recognizes your things, the CEO of the company. Having that recognition and that gratitude, that goes such a long way. So figuring out how to formalize those things, that's a big deal. If you're not building a formal champion program, having some kind of system in place to be able to elevate these quote-unquote champions or whatever you want to call them, that is kind of where you want to be. You want to make them feel like you are just shouting them from the top of the mountaintops. Be like, this person is amazing. And I think that those are like the biggest motivators and drives pretty consistently. But then you also have to give them the platform to do these things, right? You need to give them the ability to speak and shout their voice because a lot of times people don't do it themselves. I'll give you an example. So there's this guy in the Star Tree community who somebody asked a question about how does this compare to I don't even remember some other technology, and how does Pinot compare to this other technology? And this guy went in and he just said he's like, oh, well, we tested both systems out, and here's what we got. Blah, blah, blah. He just answered this guy's question, and I was like, oh, you should write a blog on, you know, help you amplify, blah, blah. And did this really comprehensive blog post. Blog posts are huge. And if you can get it from your community saying that your product is superior, that's like a big, big deal. But he created this comprehensive blog post of just documenting the different things that they tried and what worked and what didn't work and why they chose Pinot. And that is just amazing. And then we help shout it up from the rooftop and anytime that someone asks a question, we link back to his blog and we're like, oh, this guy wrote this amazing blog post and blah, blah, blah. So we're constantly recognizing him for those things. And those things make him feel really good and make him want to do more. And that's how you motivate them. But then you also have to sometimes massage it a little bit, be like, oh, what's the next thing we're going to have you do? And kind of like hold their hand a little bit to get them to do stuff. So it is important to have somebody, I think, like internally, some kind of community manager or something to help you facilitate those things. 

Jarek Jarzębowski: You have already mentioned that you've been responsible for Champions Ambassador programs before. Are there any tips that you could share with people who have already started such a program but are struggling with bringing value from these programs or growing them?

Karin Wolok: Yeah, I've had a lot of successes and I've also had some failures too, so I've learned from those things. Looking at some of the failures, what I would have done differently is I made the reward too long of a gain where it should be like you should have incremental feelings of rewards. A person does one thing, they should get something, some kind of feeling, some kind of recognition, something in there. And it wasn't enough of that quick thing. So I think that that's kind of important.

I mean, this is one of the cases where I think I could have done better, is like answering questions on Slack. You want your community to help answer questions on Slack? I personally would not encourage that as the number one use of community, in my personal opinion. I mean, it can alleviate headcount, but I just don't think it's as useful as other things of what you can use your community for.

But if you did decide you wanted to do that, we did this thing where if you answer this amount of questions in a month, you get put on a leaderboard and then you get this thing and you earn this thing and whatever, and it's six months and blah, blah, blah, whatever. It was just a long process and it's just like, oh my God, it really shouldn't be that deep. It should be like, okay, maybe they take one of the questions and they write some kind of a deeper dive blog post about it if they know it's a commonly asked question and then you send them something.

But then they also have to answer something else to get something else. Swag is like it's a very controversial topic because in a lot of ways I think swag is garbage, but in a lot of ways, I think it's vital to have because like I said, it represents you. And if somebody can earn it, that's when it's super valuable. When people earn a piece of Swag, they treasure it. I have a jacket from a conference with the conference name on it. I'm like, oh, look at this, there's a speaker on it.

So I think that's another thing is like, earn swag. So I would try to make sure that you're hitting one of those three things in each of your progression as you're having them do something. So the gratitude, the recognition level, but I think it's really important to just make sure that you're aligning those with whatever it is that you're doing. That's like something that I feel like I learned that's probably the big one. And also I would say that whatever you're asking them to do, try to make sure that it's actually going to be useful for the rest of your community.

Don't just do stuff to do stuff. So think about what you're asking them to do and how it's going to contribute back to the people in your community. So for example, what you're doing with the podcast thing. This has a lot of benefits, right? It's like, one, you're offering free educational content to the people who are developer advocates and more in your space, right? So one is that, you know, you're providing value, but then the other thing you're also doing is you're building a reputation with all these guests that you know you're doing this, right?

So you're building the reputation with all these guests on your show and you're amplifying their voice and that makes them also feel good and that makes them want to say like, oh, I love Jarek and we're homies whatever, and I love the company. So those are kind of the things you can offer them to be on a podcast or whatever. But yeah. So making sure that it's also valuable for the rest of the community is also important.

Jarek Jarzębowski: You've mentioned some failures, mistakes. Is there anything else that you would discourage other DevRel from doing?

Karin Wolok: I think every community is different, and sometimes trial and error is important. Just because it doesn't work in one community doesn't mean it won't work in another. A good way to start is to play around with individuals and see what they're doing and what works. Creating a full-blown program is very similar to building products. You don't want to build these products with all these features unless you know people actually want them. You have to do user research. Sometimes people think they want something they actually don't. Testing concepts to see if they make sense before going all in is key, otherwise, you could spend nine months building out robust champion programs that then fail. Sometimes it takes time to see what happens.

Jarek Jarzębowski: We have seen a series of layoffs in the tech space, including in DevRel. Do you think the DevRel space will grow, or will it shrink in the coming months and years?

Karin Wolok: Developer relations came from a place where companies needed someone to work with their software developer community. Over time, it's become a practice meshed into marketing and sales, changing expectations. People expect lead gen, which is not what DevRel is built for. DevRel should lead to growth, but it's complex, involving building hype, feelings, association, and relationships. It makes it susceptible to cuts because it's not a lead-generating tool and its value is hard to calculate. Developer relations has evolved into developer advocacy and evangelism. Evangelism could be more lead-generating, but DevRel shouldn't be a lead gen tool. It's becoming that, which may require a shift. Developer relations people getting involved in sales and lead gen could harm the reputation of DevRel. The term "developer advocate" is becoming salesy, which may not be good for the reputation of DevRel. It should be treated sensitively and possibly needs to be broken down into different pieces. It's a complex topic, and while lead gen is necessary, especially with tight budgets, it could be bad for DevRel's reputation. I suggested stopping calling it developer relations and just calling them software engineers who work with the community. This approach might help preserve the organic, transparent essence of DevRel.

People expect lead gen, which is not what DevRel is built for. DevRel should lead to growth, but it's complex, involving building hype, feelings, association, and relationships. It makes it susceptible to cuts because it's not a lead-generating tool and its value is hard to calculate.

Jarek Jarzębowski: This will be difficult. I mean, DevRel being lead gen, not being lead gen, bringing value to the devs, to the community, bringing value to the organization. I think that DevRel means different things to many people, to different companies. And maybe there should be some change of names, and DevRel should not be one thing, and maybe there is a way of accommodating it all, but not under one DevRel umbrella.

Karin Wolok: I think it's very smart, and I agree with you. It's interesting because you'll find developer relations jobs where the job description is not the same. Like, you'll have job descriptions that are like tutorials, documentation, whatever, and then you'll have ones that are like conferences, blogs, that are awareness.

They're different but labeled the same, and they probably shouldn't be. It's also a matter of what team they're bucketed under. That's a good way to know. Like, okay, you're under marketing or you're under product or where they're sitting can give you a good idea of what the expectations might be.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Do you have a personal preference? My guess would be product

Karin Wolok: To be its own department if the company is huge, probably under product or even engineering. But yeah, I don't think it's bad to tuck it under marketing.

But the difficult part about that is that marketing's goals are lead gen. So even if they have an understanding that developer relations is not lead gen, they have to be able to create other types of metrics that are not focused on that bottom line.

And I think as long as they're doing that, there has to be an understanding of who the person is who's contributing to DevRel and what the company's expectations are. And those things have to be aligned.

Jarek Jarzębowski: And I think this is a very good summary of our conversation. Do you have any parting thoughts to our listeners?

Karin Wolok: I love DevRel. I do hope that it continues and I hope that, actually, kind of what you were saying, it would be great if it started breaking off into pieces where the focus areas are. I think it used to be the people who were actually working with the product and giving feedback and features and requests and things like that, they were basically the advocates for the community. And now it's just become kind of I don't know, at least it feels like it's a little bit of a washed out term. I mean, not everybody knows about it, right? So not every software engineer knows what a developer advocate is.

But I do hope it doesn't go there, because it's like the software engineer culture, like the personality of software engineers is to just remain very honest and just be like good people and kind to each other.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Let's hope for that. Before we wrap up, where can people find you if they want to talk to you further?

Karin Wolok: Google my name and find me on anything that you want.

Jarek Jarzębowski: Thank you very much, Karin, for the conversation. And I hope we'll be able to talk again and maybe see how DevRel evolves.

Karin Wolok: Yes. Thank you for having me. This was fun.

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Closing Thoughts

As developer relations evolve, the dialogue highlights the need for a nuanced approach that balances the foundational ethos of DevRel with the evolving demands of the tech landscape. The future of DevRel lies in its ability to adapt, specializing to meet diverse community needs while fostering genuine connections and growth within the tech ecosystem.

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