It was Sunday the 7th of June 2020. The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic had hit and everywhere was in strict lockdown. I can't remember the exact specifics, but I think I was probably sat on the couch in my house in the UK at the time, perusing Twitter on my phone. I stumbled across a tweet from a Developer Advocate at Microsoft, Brandon. I'm not sure I was even following him at the time, but it was probably retweeted by someone I was following.
Brandon Minnick@thecodetravelerHi Friends!
My good friend PJ (@MetzClassroom) is kicking off his first @Twitch stream today!!
He is learning to code after teaching High School English professionally for 15 years.
Come cheer him on as he builds his first website 🎉
twitch.tv/metzinaround21:19 PM - 07 Jun 2020
I went upstairs to my “home office” that I had set up in the spare bedroom. I had started a new role as a Developer Advocate at IBM a few months prior. I'd only visited the office in London once, just before the lockdowns came into effect. As a team whose main role was in-person meetups and events in the UK, we were trying to re-orient ourselves to producing online content. As a part of that, I had recently started Twitch streaming myself. I'd not used Twitch before, but become aware of it via some other colleagues at IBM that were using it for live-coding and education. I loved the idea (and it terrified me!) that you could just broadcast yourself coding and other people might drop in the chat to keep you company, offer assistance, chat nonsense, etc.
Anyway, I joined PJ's channel and he was there learning the very basics of, I think, HTML at the time. Maybe C#. Brandon was there too assisting him. I think there was no more than 3-4 people in the chat. But it felt great to be able to help someone start learning the basics. Every so often PJ would divert into something about literature (he was an English teacher after all) and talk about some paragraph of a book, or some poet I'd never heard of. But it was enjoyable. Listening to his passion about literature, and trying to channel that into learning something new.
I started following PJ on Twitter, as well as Brandon and another Developer Advocate friend of theirs Chloe. Together they created a bunch of silly little bots on Twitter, e.g. the Shania bot ("Let's go girls!"). A bot that begged Mountain Dew for sponsorship (at least I think that one was a bot). Chloe was also from a non-programming background, having originally come from theatre arts and stage school into DevRel. They did some fantastically entertaining shows online and started a Podcast called 8-bits.
PJ eventually managed to get a role in DevRel and is now an Education evangelist at Gitlab.
This is all great Matt, but so what?
It is just over two years since that tweet at the top, and stumbling across PJ and his journey into DevRel, and Chloe and her journey from theatre arts to DevRel.
A few days ago I was interviewing for a company for a senior developer relations role. I had four different interviews, covering different aspects such as my technical knowledge or my thoughts on developer advocacy, building and leading teams, etc.
One specific question I was asked in the last interview was:
"Do you think a developer advocate needs to have a software development / technical background?".
And some neurons somewhere in the recesses of my brain fired and I remembered PJ, and Chloe and their origins in high school english teaching and stage acting.
"No." I replied. And I went on to explain that the most important aspect, in my view, for developer relations is the ability to relate to and empathise with developers. Yes, of course, one of the most obvious ways is to have a development or technical background yourself. But actually, those coming into tech from other backgrounds are learning themselves. They have very fresh experience of having to learn the new terminology, functionality, etc of a product and explain it to others. They bring different skills, and different experiences to the table.
I remember myself when I first started learning AI and machine learning. Whilst I was a developer, I had no experience yet in machine learning. "Is that a regression problem or a classification problem?". I had no idea. I didn't even understand the terminology to describe what I was trying to learn. What is a tensor? What is a logit? So when I moved into doing DevRel for machine learning, I was able to think "What would I like to have known when I started in machine learning that would have made it easier for me?".
Another question I was asked in the interview:
"Can you give an example of where you have helped another developer progress?"
Again, I remembered another event that came from a random encounter. We were running an internal hackathon at Ripple, and a developer, Ami, from a different part of the company, that I'd never come across presented a fantastic hackathon project they were working on. I had recently been accepted as a speaker at Python Web Conference 2022, and the topic I was going to speak on aligned very much with what Ami developed in the hackathon. I approached Ami after the hackathon, and asked if she would like to co-present a talk with me at the conference. She was a fantastic developer, but I could see she would make a really good developer advocate as well. She had never spoken at a conference before, but agreed to do so. I contacted the conference organisers and let them know I'd now be co-presenting with a colleague.
The talk went fantastically! I talked about the general topic, and Ami gave a live-coding demo. A pretty amazing feat for someone's first conference talk!
Around that time I left Ripple, but Ami wanted to stay in touch and asked me to be her mentor. I was honoured, and glad to be able to help in any way I could. I hope one day she makes the move full-time into DevRel!
So this brings me back to the title of this post, "Lift as you climb". This was a saying I first heard from another developer advocate, Cassidy Williams. As you learn and progress, help bring others along with you too. In that post she talks about the importance of communities and mentorship:
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the community around me,” Cassidy points out. “You can do pretty well on your own in tech but you can really succeed if you have a community that you help that then helps you in return.”
And so I'd like to take this time to thank all those random people I've interacted with over the years that have got me to where I am now. Many of you may not have even realised how you have helped.
Oh... and I got the job! ;)