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Mary Thengvall on the Value of Developer Relations

samjarman profile image Sam Jarman 👨🏼‍💻 Originally published at samjarman.co.nz ・8 min read

Dev Chats is back for season two! This is a series where I speak to an awesome developer or techie every week or so. You can read more here. Let me know if you know someone awesome I should chat to next.




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Introduce yourself! Who are you? Where do you work?

My name is Mary Thengvall. I’ve been involved in fostering developer communities for 10+ years now. I have a journalism background but got launched into the tech world because of an internship at O’Reilly Media. I fell in love with tech communities and haven’t looked back since!

Who or what got you into technology?

I like to say that I got into tech accidentally, but in reality, my dad got me interested in tech when I was a kid. He was a Controller for a branch of Napa Auto Parts and occasionally he’d bring home new computers to test out for his office. He got my sister and I set up with an early touch typing game and I was hooked. When I was in high school I wrote poetry (what high school student doesn’t?) and wanted to make a website to officially publish some of the poems. Yahoo Sites was a thing at the time, but the only options were plug-and-play, which didn’t suit my style. My dad encouraged me to dig into HTML and understand why things were working the way that they did, and within a few weeks I had my first functional website.

I didn’t dig into tech beyond fiddling around on a website every now and again until my internship at O’Reilly Media. I was placed in the PR department, working on book promotion and distributing review copies to journalists. However, as a journalism student, I wanted to understand the topics that we were publicizing, not just rewrite back cover copy and move onto the next book. I researched each topic before writing the press release -- How did JavaScript & CSS work together? Why was monitoring and alerting so incredibly important? And where did Hadoop fit in?

Pretty soon, I had a decent mind map of which topics fit with others, which ones were in completely different fields, and what questions to ask in order to learn more. My next mission was to learn why we published what we were publishing. Who made those decisions? And what information were they gathering from our readers in order to make sure we were making the right decisions?

I persisted, continuing to ask these questions, until Laura Baldwin, O’Reilly’s President, gave me the opportunity to take on the title of Community Manager and find the answers to my questions. She jump-started my journey to the world of Developer Relations, which I wasn’t even aware of when I took the opportunity.

Since then, I’ve worked with influencers and thought leaders all over the world, learning about what matters to them and where they think the tech industry is going. I’ve become an advocate for them internally at the companies that I’ve worked at, making sure that their opinions get raised, even when they’re not there to express them personally.

These communities are what started my passion for Developer Relations -- how can I best serve them and help them reach their potential? -- but these days, I’m more focused on the companies that are investing in Developer Relations and the individuals who pursue this as their career.

I’ve noticed a distinct lack in understanding around the value that these Developer Relations programs bring to the business. My goal with Persa Consulting is to push the industry forward by providing resources for those on Developer Relations teams as well as helping company stakeholders understand the true value that can be gained by fostering relationships with your technical community.

How has DevRel Weekly affected your career?

DevRel Weekly was my first solo venture into providing resources for the Developer Relations practitioner community (Community Pulse, a monthly podcast, has been going strong for 3+ years now). While the book was a work-in-progress, it wouldn’t be released for several months and this was an opportunity to provide ongoing weekly content.

It’s also been a good way for me to keep up in industry trends. By pulling together dozens of RSS feeds and sorting through hundreds of links every week, I spend hours each week sifting through DevRel-related content. I’m in the process of analyzing the data from the first year of the newsletter and plan to release an annual report with information about what topics were most published about as well as what people were most interested in, based on click-throughs as well as the number of articles that came across my plate every week.

The purpose of DevRel Weekly is to highlight and amplify the awesome content that people are releasing around the topic of Developer Relations. Finding good DevRel-related content is difficult -- not many people publish about it, and those that do often don’t use helpful keywords that make it easy for others to find.

To that end, DevRel Weekly brings DevRel professionals and company stakeholders a curated list of articles, job postings, and events every Thursday, saving them the time and effort of scouring the web for the latest information. Instead, they can focus on how to grow a team, prove their business value, and build relationships with their community.

Congrats on your recent book! How did that come about? What impact are you hoping for?

The Business Value of Developer Relations has been a labor of love, that’s for sure! It started as a conversation at SCaLE 15x in 2017, where four of us in the industry expressed the desire to create more resources for Developer Relations professionals. Julie Gunderson, Jason Yee, Nathen Harvey, and myself, committed verbally to write a book with Louise Corrigan, editor at Apress. I was lucky enough to have dedicated time to work on the book during the work-week (thanks, SparkPost!) and wound up taking the entire project over in July 2017.

The audience for the book is two-fold: The first half is directed toward stakeholders or decision-makers who need to understand why Developer Relations is a valuable endeavor. It’s become such a buzzword that everyone thinks they need “a DevRel” (reminding me of the “I need a DevOps!” craze from a few years back) but few understand what to do once they’ve hired someone. The first few chapters help these stakeholders understand what they need to do in order to build a sustainable Developer Relations team and how to set it up for success from the start. I spend time on what metrics to track and how to set goals, as well as who to hire and what each of the individual roles bring to the table.

The second half of the book addresses what to do after you’ve hired someone. It walks through more of the practical aspects -- sponsoring and speaking at conferences, how to work with other teams throughout the company, how to build an online community, and more.

I worked in publishing for too many years to think that I’m going to get rich off of publishing a book ;) Rather, I’m focused on providing valuable content for those around me. Tweets like this one (https://twitter.com/rachfrieee/status/1082771940903796736?s=21) are incredibly satisfying to me, because I know that the project I poured myself into for over a year is truly helping other people.

How do you think the developer relations/industry will change over the coming years, and how might that affect your role?

My sincere hope is that 2019 is the year for DevRel to come into its own. It’s been a buzzword for at least 2 years now, gaining in popularity since the mid-2000s. There are more job opportunities than ever and more professionals are looking for information about what Developer Relations looks like on a day-to-day basis. But there’s still a lot of questions from board members and stakeholders to be answered, including where is the value (aka ROI) from these teams.

It’s my hope that 2019 and 2020 will be the years where we start to ride the wave and get to relax a little bit rather than constantly being on the defensive against people who might have the wrong impression of what Developer Relations entails.

What has been your toughest lesson to learn in your tech career so far?

I need to do what I’m doing for me. Not for my boss… not for my friends… not even for my community. If it doesn’t matter to me, it won’t be rewarding and instead of feeling like I’ve accomplished something, I’ll just be looking for the next thing that I need to do to prove myself to other people.

Protecting myself from burnout has been the other big lesson I’ve had to learn. I’ve done several talks on the matter (community/DevRel focused: https://vimeo.com/179488000 and generic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ppmFCk5XXE) and feel strongly that it’s a trend that we need to nip in the bud. These days, I’m careful to make sure that my days are balanced and that there’s always one thing, no matter how small, that gives me “net energy.” In other words, once I’m done with that activity, I have more energy than I did when I started.

What would be your number one piece of advice for a successful tech career?

See above re: burnout :)

Have you got any hobbies outside of your job? Do you think they help your tech career in any way?

I’m actually working to add hobbies back in! I’ve loved reading for years and have always devoured books. I’m working on adding fiction books back into my regular schedule, “for fun.”

I’ve also started running again recently. It’s been a few years since I’ve run consistently, but I can definitely tell a difference in my energy and ability to focus. Even if it’s not running persay, exercise makes a big mental difference in the day to day for me!

What books/resources would you recommend for others wanting to follow a path similar to yours?

My own, of course ;) The Art of Community by Jono Bacon is also fantastic, and is actually what I cut my teeth on. It’s more specifically aimed at open source communities, but is excellent! I’ve long enjoyed business books such as Start! and Turn the Ship Around as well.

Finally, make your shoutout! What would you like the readers to go have a look at?

If you’re looking for Developer Relations content on a regular basis, DevRel Weekly is the place to go! I publish somewhat infrequently on my own blog: marythengvall.com/blog and you can also find me on Medium: medium.com/@mary_grace. If you’re interested in what Developer Relations is and how to pursue it, The Business Value of Developer Relations is a great road map that should lead you to a place where you can effectively create, foster, and lead a technical community. If you’re a DevRel professional and need some help figuring out the next steps for your business, check out my consulting website: persea-consulting.com. Lastly, if you want to know what I’m up to both personally and professionally, hit me up on Twitter @mary_grace. My DMs are open and I’m always willing to help however I can!

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