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Andy Haskell
Andy Haskell

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How AuDHD traits have helped me get good at devrel

Developer relations (devrel) might not be front of everyone's mind as a career that a neurodivergent person would excel in. However, not only are there many neurodivergent people already succeeding and trailblazing in this field, many neurodivergent traits can actually be conducive to great devrel.

To demonstrate what I mean, I'd like to talk about some of my own neurodivergent traits that have helped me get good at devrel in the Go, JavaScript, and #CodeNewbie communities. I am AuDHD (autistic + ADHD) and although I haven't formally worked in a devrel role, I'd still call myself devrel-adjacent. I have done a lot of devrel work through tutorial-writing, event organizing, open-source contributions, and participating in social media tech communities, and my neurodivergent traits have been integral to my devrel style.

⚠️ Two things before we begin:

  • While I am talking about my own AuDHD traits, please note that I am just one AuDHD person, and that even people who are neurodivergent in the same way don't all have identical traits and skills. So please do not treat me as representative of all AuDHD people. A common adage in the autistic community is "if you meet one autistic person, you've met one autistic person".
  • As I will talk about in more detail at the end of this blog post, please do not take away from this "neurodivergence is a super power". While neurodivergent traits can help someone in some aspects of life, they can be disabling in others. Therefore, accommodations still matter for neurodivergent tech workers.

Special Interests

One of the most well-known common autistic traits is Special Interests. It's where an autistic person gets intensely focused on some topic. The one that's become an autistic stereotype is a Special Interest in trains (some of us do have that Special Interest, some don't), but really any topic can be a Special Interest. For example I've been a bio guy basically since I found out nature documentaries were a thing!

Special Interests have helped me do devrel work in three ways. First, they get me motivated to understand a tech stack in-depth. Second, it makes me want to teach others everything I've learned (this is another common autistic trait, infodumping). And third, the most devrel-relevant part, it makes me excited to participate in communities around the tech that I work with.

Probably the most salient example of this in my devrel, was getting a Special Interest in Go in 2014. Soon after getting the hang of Go's net/http package, I started tweeting about it and writing Go tutorials. This led to me making friends with a lot of other Gophers (people who code in Go), and when the Boston Go meetup launched, I quickly became an enthusiastic regular at the meetup, and I've participated in the Go community through tutorial-writing, public speaking, and working on the organizing team for Boston Go.

Besides Special Interests directly in tech though, Special Interests can also be used to add a personal touch to your devrel. I got a Special Interest in sloths through a friend in college, and since then sloth facts have been a signature part of the examples I use in my blog posts and talks. πŸ¦₯

ADHD novelty-seeking

A common ADHD trait is novelty-seeking - seeking out new things and new experiences. It's why growing up I went through so many video games. It's also why in my tech career, even though for my actual jobs I've primarily done backend web engineering in Go, outside of work, I've accumulated a lot of other tech skills like the JavaScript frontend ecosystem, terminal UIs, accessibility, and Ruby.

This ADHD novelty-seeking, and autistic Special Interests, make a potent combination in devrel, because novelty-seeking in a tech stack someone knows in-depth leads to helping developers see how that tech can solve real-world problems, which can lead to really practical tutorials (with some Special Interest-driven fun mixed in!). And meeting developers where they are, whether they're hobby developers or they use your tech at work, is a key part of an impactful devrel program, since that gets more people using your tech and participating in its community!

Likewise, since using a lot of different tech means spending a lot of my time being a newcomer in it, that leads to finding aspects of "getting stuff done" with a tool that aren't talked about enough in a newcomer-friendly way. My first blog post to get more than 10,000 views was this tutorial on webpack, which came out of spending A LOT of time getting tangled up in the frontend JavaScript ecosystem. The webpack resources I found were well-written for experienced frontend developers, but I found them challenging to follow as a newcomer and I felt like I was missing some core concepts. So after cobbling together a webpack build that gave me what I needed, I worked backwards to write a from-the-ground-up webpack tutorial (also, 14-minute read, talk about infodumping! πŸ˜…).

Attention to detail

One more AuDHD trait I would like to talk about is autistic precision. Many autistic people prefer to do things precisely and give precise answers to questions. This often can make an autistic person come off as pedantic, but when you're writing documentation, a from-the-ground-up tutorial, or in general giving instructions, this can be advantageous.

In coding in general, not just devrel, this attention to detail can lead to sniffing out bugs that are easy to overlook, or detecting the potential for a bug or technical debt before the coding on an assignment has even started. And for me, because my devrel comes out of a "learning by doing" approach, when I learn a new framework, I find myself spending a lot of time pondering "would this approach still work in [this scenario I'm eventually gonna run into on this project]?" And that sort of attention to detail in devrel leads to laser-carved documentation that lets developers know about edge cases, give realistic examples of how the code is used, and clarify differences between similar pieces of functionality.

This attention to detail also can mean that for key abstractions in a tool or framework, what concretely goes on doesn't go unexplained. For example, when I was learning Go for web development, my first stumbling block was understanding how interfaces worked, particularly http.Handler, which is key to doing web development with Go's powerful net/http package and the fits-like-a-glove package built on top of it, the Gorilla Mux router. My way of finding out how that worked, and seeing the elegance of that interface, was pretty unorthodox - I figured out how Handlers worked by looking directly at Go's source code (which also is a demonstration of Go's readability, if you're interested in joining the Gophers!). And coming out of that was my very first tech talk at in 2015, on learning Gorilla from its Node.js counterpart, Express.js!

Accommodations still matter

While in this post I talked about how my AuDHD traits have shaped my devrel work, one thing you shouldn't take away from this talk, especially if you run a devrel program, is the common cliche "neurodivergence is a super power". While neurodivergent traits often can be strengths in some areas as I've shown, they can be disabling in other areas. This is why it is still important in devrel, like in all workplaces, disability accommodations are still important.

For example, one flip side to my eye for detail, is perfectionism in my work. So as a software engineer, whenever I'm working on a team and there are time constraints to work around, I find it really helpful coordinating with a teammate to determine which things to prioritize and make a plan for when to address a concern I noticed from a low-level detail. Also, with ADHD, I find it really helpful to allocate dedicated distraction-free focus time. And while I don't use this accommodation myself, one accommodation I have heard of people using is AI transcriptions of major meetings so that people can go through the discussion of a meeting at their own pace.

Many accommodations, by the way, can have benefits for your whole team. For example, if it's the norm on a team for people to respect each other's focus time, that can lead to the whole team, including neurotypical (non-neurodivergent) employees, being able to do distraction-free work. Meeting recordings and transcripts have a side benefit also mean someone can watch a meeting even if it happened outside of work hours in their time zone.

Neurodiversity strengthens devrel!

While I didn't want you taking away from this that neurodivergence is a super power, the takeaway I do want to give is that like other forms of diversity such as racial, gender, LGBTQ, cultural, and age diversity, I firmly believe neurodiversity strengthens devrel! Yes neuroinclusion and all forms of inclusion in the workplace take effort, but I believe putting in that groundwork sets a team up for success.

On a neurodiverse team where neurodivergent and neurotypical people are supported and respected, you get perspectives of people teaching about your tech from different styles of thinking. This is incredibly impactful when you're teaching about a platform, tool, or framework, because people using your tech and participating in its community also have a wide range of problem-solving styles and questions they need answers to when they're using your tech. Additionally, on a neuroinclusive team, your neurodivergent team members don't get burnout so easily, which means they're more likely to stick around and become great mentors and leaders in your team! This is all on top of the ways I've mentioned that neurodivergent traits can be strengths for individuals doing devrel work.

To end this post, since as I said in the beginning, I am only one AuDHD person, if you're neurodivergent and do devrel in any capacity (whether developer advocate is your formal job title, or you give tech talks from time to time), and you feel comfortable sharing, I'd love to hear your perspective on if/how you feel your neurodivergence shapes how you do devrel!

And happy Autism Acceptance Month! πŸŒˆβ™ΎοΈ

Top comments (1)

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Maggie L

Thank you for sharing. Great article.