Finding your ‘why’ in developer marketing

Career growth is a question that comes up a lot, especially because developer marketing is so niche. I don't want to go over my bona fides right now, but I will share a story.

It’s a story from when I was working in developer relations at a small company you might have heard of, called Nokia.

I was talking to a developer in the developer forum, and I was trying to explain the importance of good user experience when it comes to applications. I said, “Show me what your app does.”

And he said, “Well, it does this, it does location, it does time, it does 18 different APIs in this one application.”

Then I asked him, “What do you expect your user to do with this app?”

He looked at me and said, “I expect my user to discover one out of the 32 features of this application and then use it religiously.”

And then Apple released the iPhone and nuked Nokia. So, that taught me an important lesson: always keep user experience first and foremost when developing anything.

But anyways, I was talking about career growth. 2020 hit me really, really hard. A lot of people got burned out, a lot of people just needed to take a break, and I was right there with it.

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We were very event-based and very focused on meeting people in person, and this great pivot caused a lot of people across our entire industry to just sit back and think, OK, what's going on here? How am I going to find my way in this new career when this giant thing is happening to the world?

But, it's not really a question of how you find your way in this career. It's a question of how you find your ‘why.’ Why am I even here? We were asking these kinds of existential questions just two years ago.

When I was stressing about life, the universe, and everything a couple of years ago, I went on a rampage of reading. I realized, OK, I’m not the only person in the world who's gone through this. So, I picked up a lot of books.

This happens to everybody in every industry around the world. It's the most important reason or purpose for anyone, for someone or something's existence.

If you hop over to the other end of the globe to Japan, we've got ikigai. Ikigai is the motivating force that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living.

But, then, I got inspired by that and I thought, OK, if this is pancultural and other people have this figured out, I've really got to tap into what's going on there.

I picked up this book and it talks about how Japanese people have it figured out. Just look at Ghibli studios and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. But there was a lot to take away from that in terms of a framework.

So, welcome to the ikigai framework. If you look at a giant Venn diagram, it's the intersection of four different main factors that means that you can do something sustainably over the course of your career.

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If we go to the example of Jiro Ito and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you can still watch it on Netflix. He started making sushi at the age of nine, and then I think he's still around at the age of 90. I think we all really want something that keeps us sustained for this long in our career.

But, if we look at the first part of this, that means it's never going to be boring, and I've got some examples here. It's not going to make you money. Maybe people won't want it, something like collecting shiny rocks.

The next one we have here is, does the world need it? Is this something that you do just for yourself or does it do something to help the community around you? If you think about that, you like cooking, and a lot of people like good food. You like sanitizing telephones, other people love clean phones.

Another one is your profession. What do you do to make money? Sometimes there’s an intersection between things you love and things that you're paid for.

And then, finally, these are things that you're great at. It could be sketching, it could be playing the theremin like a lot of people love.

Then you put them all together in the middle, the part that we call ikigai.

One example that I like to give is Marie Kondo. She loved cleaning and organizing for her friends, and she turned it into a multimillion dollar business. Who would have thought?

I was going through that, and I was feeling pretty inspired by this framework. And then I thought, we can refine the ikigai framework for developer marketing career growth.

So, I've got an even better ikigai that we can all start using today: the geeky eye.

person writing on an ikigai journal

Career cold start algorithms for developer marketing and developer relations

This is my new and improved framework. So, let's start with ‘developers need it.’

When it comes to developer stuff, there's a really great survey that SlashData does once a year called the Developer Nation. When they released their study at the end of 2021, they were saying that there were 26.8 million developers around the world. At the end of 2030, there's going to be 45 million developers.

But which developers need what, out of these 45 million developers?

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But the way that you really drill down into what specific developers you’re talking to is by applying the filter of business need. That's how you get your slice of who you’re marketing to. But how do you get there? How do you get the business need to get to your addressable market?

What we do is go to the next section of our geeky eye and talk about how we figure out how businesses need what you're going to deliver.

You need a process for that. If I get dropped into a new scenario or a new job or a new role within a company, there's some things that I’ve found to be super successful in orienting me and aligning me with my primary stakeholders so that I can really deliver what people want.

The first one is called the Career Cold Start Algorithm, and it's by this guy named Boz. Right now, he's currently with Meta. Because he's with a large organization, these large organizations get shuffled around a lot and the pressure is on people, especially if they're managers or leaders, to get on that, figure out what the problem is, triage situations, and fix issues.

So, Boz has come up with a way to figure out what's happening and start attacking the problems in order from the get-go.

It's a really simple algorithm.

The first one is a series of 30-minute meetings. We all work, we all have meetings, and 30 minutes is not too much to ask for anybody.

So, the first 25 minutes of this conversation is going to be that you roll up with your notebook and just write and listen. And then you say, "What do you think I should know?”

At this point, you've sent an invitation and you're saying, “Hi, I'm here to solve all your problems. Please give me your problems so I can solve them.” You just listen. And if there's any acronyms or phrases, just stop the conversation cold and say, “What does that mean?” And just write. This is not your time to speak at all.

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For the next 3 minutes, you want to say, “What are your biggest challenges? What are the problems you're trying to solve?” And this is not just developers, this is everybody.

And for the last two minutes, you ask, “Who else should I talk to?“ And you know you're done when you have the same names over and over again.

So, this is kind of a self-limiting listening tour exercise and that's really going to get you just by matrix power alone, a full mind map of your stakeholders cross-functionally.

I was looking at this framework and I thought, That's super useful. What if we made it for developer relations? So I have a new career cold start algorithm for developer relations. This name is also open for workshopping.

This one is a tuning of that off-the-shelf career cold start algorithm.

Recently, I had adopted Messenger and Instagram, in addition to WhatsApp. I like to talk to my stakeholders, and I say, “What are you working on for developers?” The second question: “How do you think developers benefit the business?” And the third one is: “What would success look like for you?” Take from these two what you think might be impactful.

And then, “What are your biggest challenges?” It's a slight tweak that I found works for me. And the last one is, “How would you like to connect from now on?” Because what I've noticed when I'm talking to a lot of people across companies is that people tend to have very strong opinions about how to converse and how to talk, and a lot of people just don't bother telling you what they are.

Some people love Slack, some people love chat, some people like regular one-on ones. Some people just want to be tagged in posts as an FYI.

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But, in order to be a good partner and a good cross-functional stakeholder, you need be able to understand from the get-go and be clear on your expectations from the beginning.

Another one that helps you once you go on this listening tour is what's called the 30-60-90 day plan. And this is a really helpful link because it has downloadable templates, and if you're looking for things to use, this will be super helpful for you. But this is something that’s a great alignment tool that helps you understand what's going for your 30-day listening tour.

This might be 'thoughts on what I think might be helpful for the business'. And then the next 90 days are, “This is my plan for executing on the business.”

So between these two, you're going to be in a very strong situation to be able to deliver good impact without disrupting things or annoying people. Hopefully you'll be able to use these if you look for these kinds of resources, or if you need something like this.

As a result, you get a bunch of the business needs. Now that you have a full understanding of what your company wants and needs, you can help solve it for yourself, but usually we can't do this alone and we need help, if not within the company, then with the help of other companies to solve it.

And then you can really start delivering on your developer strategy.

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Finding your ‘flow’

My older sister works at Industrial Light & Magic. She knew she wanted to be an editor from when she was a little kid. When she was five years old, she saw Star Wars and thought, “I want to work on that.”

So, how do you know that you love it and are good for it?

This is something that I thought a lot about in the bad times of two years ago. I picked up a lot of books, but I also picked up flow. Flow is a notion that became popular a couple of years ago, and it's where you lose sense of time. You have a sense of ease, but you have challenges that you want to solve, and you're very active instead of passive.

A lot of people just watch a lot of TV or TikTok and say, “Yeah, I'm in flow. I'm totally flowing through my feed.” That's not how it is. You need to be engaged and you need to be active.

Maybe you've been busy and you just haven't had a chance to discover your flow yet. There's a few different ways that I've used and heard other people use to discover your flow.

The first one is to take a sabbatical or a vacation. But here's the funny bit about taking a vacation and trying to find your flow through vacation. There's a bit of psychological research that was done just last year, and they found out that you can take too much time off.

woman reading on a hammock and relaxing

The brain actually gets really upset with you if you take more than five hours a day of what's called discretionary time. So, you can't flip the table and nope out because it'll still be unhappy afterwards.

I thought that was fascinating, especially during the time of the great resignation. I think a lot of people just decided that they’d quit their jobs because they were unhappy. Like, I'm really curious to see if there's follow up research to see how these people are doing nowadays.

Let's say you’re on vacation or you're working and you want to find your flow. Have you all heard of bullet journaling? The fascinating thing about bullet journaling is that the entire notion was brought up by this guy named Ryder Carroll.

He was a product manager with ADHD, and he was forgetting things and feeling frustrated, and he was trying all these different apps to keep notes on things.

Ryder realized that he just needed a piece of paper and a pen. So, he just logged everything that was going on and everything that he needed to remember. And then at the end of the day and end of the month, he’d audit all the things that were going on in his life, and he'd say, “These things make me happy. These things give me flow. These things make me very unhappy, so I’ll do less of these in the future.”

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I thought that was really fascinating. You don't have to do it for very long. If you look on the internet, it's going to be insane. This is usually what it looks like in practice. If you want to Google it, it's called functional bullet journaling.

The other thing that helps you find your flow is what's called mentoring. Another way, of course, is also menteeing. But since I've been around for a while, I tend to talk more about mentoring because I think it's really undervalued.

I've mentored with several different organizations over the years, and there's a huge pitch. I was mentoring with an organization called WOMEN Unlimited, and when they were pitching mentoring to me, they had this huge list of what mentors get out of it.

The dirty secret is that you'll actually learn more about yourself as a mentor than when you're actually giving other people guidance. Mentoring is super fun. If you haven't done it yet or if you think you haven't had enough experience, just jump into it and see. I'm sure you have more experience than you know.

The dirty secret number two of mentoring is that it feels wonderful. There's nothing quite like helping other people when you don't really have skin in the game, and just being altruistic and helping others along in their career. That’ll really give you the warm fuzzies. And even if you haven't found your flow, you're going to feel good about giving back.

The third one, especially in this industry, is that you can start building up a hiring pipeline. So, if they work out well, you can recommend them for good roles, either at places you know, or possibly your own team down the line. That's what's happening, and that's how you know you're you're good at it.

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And then how do you figure out if you get paid for it? This isn't rocket science. One thing that I like to do is looping. I learned this from a mentor that I was talking with a couple of years ago. Looping is a phrase that we have, at least in some of the companies that I've been with, and it’s not the movie starring Bruce Willis.

Looping is basically doing an industry skills match between what you're interested in and what you want to do. Looping can be very casual and light. It could comprise of just scrolling through Glassdoor or LinkedIn. For example, “I do events, I do webinars, I do community stuff. Let me see what matches up with what I do and what I like and the environment.”

So, if you find that something is really growing, you might want to lean into that skill set, see if you like it, and if you can double down on it and turn it into a career path for you. Or, if you find that it's something that's rapidly becoming obsolescent, you'll know it because you're tracking this.

My mentor previously said, “You know what's great is to just do an annual audit”. I don't know if you guys do this with your money, but in addition to checking your own personal financial audit, check your career audit. Just give yourself a once over and see if you're still valid for the industry that you're in.

Discretion is key. I was talking to a couple of people about this and they were like, “I'll just tell my boss that I'm interviewing and then they'll give me a raise.” No, no, no. Don't do that, because what's probably going to happen is your boss is going to backfill you. Even if you're happy in your job, you're going to find yourself in a very unpleasant situation.

So, discretion is key. Just do it for yourself, check in, make sure that you're OK with your career.

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Figuring out your role in the developer marketing world

I was talking with Paige Paquette the other day. She did a lot of work with Slack and developer relations a couple of years ago. But we were chatting and she said, “With the growth of this industry, there's definitely a lack of consistency with the definition of roles in the developer marketing space.”

So, someone who's a developer marketing manager over here might be a PM over here. And you just don't even know until you actually read into what these things are.

When I was a kid, if you asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would not have said, “head of developer marketing.” Nowadays, the world is so much more full of different variants of people that do really similar things.

We're talking about words like citizen developer, low-code, high-code, enterprise solutions, community managers, all of these different things.

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We didn't know that any of these job titles existed 15 years ago. This is what it is now. Who knows what the industry is going to look like 10 years from now. You can’t plot a traditional career trajectory.

PMMs are a lot more mature, so they’re a bit more baked into their career paths. We just don't have that yet as developer marketers.

What you can do though is figure out your geeky eye, and then figure out what you like, what you want to do, what you're good at, and then intentionally work on these four circles to build it out so you can be sustainable and be the future Jane Goodall of developer marketing.

Further reading: