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Founder First Steps: Developer Advocacy

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Are you ready to hire an Advocate?
Where do you find a great developer advocate?
How do you measure your first advocate?
6 min

Are you ready to hire an Advocate?

It can be tempting to hire an advocate early in the life of your company. Having someone on the ground at meetups and conferences getting folks excited about your product is an attractive prospect for founders. It’s important that you hire an advocate only when you know they’ll have an outsized impact on the future of your company. Deciding if your company is ready to hire a dedicated developer advocate isn’t always a straightforward process, and is often compared to the notoriously difficult first sales hire process.

At this early stage, you as Founder and each of your early team should be advocating in some way or another, but the primary focus should be on your product and finding market fit. Justin Johnson, who helped build and lead the successful advocacy team at Keen IO, has a high bar to clear before building an advocacy team. He suggests not hiring an advocate until you’ve built a repeatable sales process; “if you haven’t found a repeatable process to sell your product for real money, you’re not ready to start building an advocacy team.”

Do you have paying customers? Are you finding repeatable sales success? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you’re ready to get started on your advocacy team.

Where do you find a great developer advocate?

This is a question we hear a lot at Heavybit: where do I go to find a great developer advocate? The answer of course depends quite a bit on your product, the existing communities in your orbit, and your target user personas, but there are some general characteristics you can rely on to get you started.

Jade Wang, Lead Developer Advocate at Cloudflare, describes two common crisscrossing career paths into and out of Developer Advocacy. On one side of the search you’ll find junior technical people, likely recently graduated from a dev boot camp of some sort, or they come from a community organizing background, and are currently the organizers of a tech meetup group. These folks have a longer term goal of being senior software engineers, but for now their desire to get into the industry, familiarize themselves with all the tools in the ecosystem, and to build a network makes them very effective advocates.

On the other side of the search are more senior engineers who have a strong interest in product and may become product managers or entrepreneurs at some point. Spending time with customers and your community through your advocacy work is a surefire way to build empathy, which is a critical attribute in a strong PM. These engineers, intentionally or not, find themselves in deeper conversations with customers to better understand the problems they face. As a result, they might naturally transition into the role of leading your Developer Relations program, or they might become a product manager.

So, when looking for your first advocate, look for someone with either a deep understanding of your technology and product (e.g., an engineer who is already talking to your customers), or has a good understanding of the demographics of your target developers. This person is likely to be a good leader for the eager junior devs looking to break into the industry, though you may need to invest in leveling up their people management skills.

As you will likely find, the advocate and evangelist roles are fairly transient. The best candidates are only in the sweet spot for two to four years before they move further down their path. This is to be expected and is one of the biggest pain points in the advocacy world. With high turnover in these roles, the loss of valuable institutional knowledge is a real problem. To help combat this, Jade suggests that you make it a priority to document your advocacy efforts with the same purpose you would your code.

How do you measure your first advocate?

This is another tough question we hear quite often at Heavybit. Unlike a technical engineering role where X hours of work turns into Y new feature that increases user engagement by Z percent, advocacy is a lot more fluid. So how should you measure the success of your first advocate?

There are lots of difficult to measure metrics floating around like stickers on laptops, meetup attendees, or even high-fives, along with more easily quantified ones like pageviews, number of conversations per week, or talks given. At the outset, it’s truthfully less about these specific metrics than it is about a clear understanding of the top-level goals and an agreed upon timeline towards success.

Sit down with your new advocate to discuss and write down what your top level goals are, what the activities in pursuit of those goals will look like, and outline a calendar for checking in. Like sales, advocacy work can have a pretty long cycle from first contact to ROI. A helpful conversation at a meetup today can turn into a paying customer weeks, months or even years down the road. This cycle varies with different tactics and different products, so until you’ve got a strong understanding of your own cycle, being extremely clear about goals, activities, and check-ins can help avoid mismatched expectations between you and your advocate.

Do you want to learn more about building your own advocacy team? Let me know what questions you have on Twitter, and sign up to attend a very special panel discussion on Oct. 24th featuring both Justin and Jade, as well as Bear Douglas and Tim Falls.