The Developer Advocacy Handbook

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Working with your competition

Don't pick things you like and demand people to accommodate to your needs

Work with the competition

As a developer advocate you have to keep your independence. Yes, you are a specialist in the technologies of your company, but if you are oblivious to the world outside the company and preach a mono-culture you will not get far.

Fact: Your independence and your integrity is your main power. If you lost it you are not effective any longer. People should get excited about what you do because they trust your judgment - not because you work for a certain company.

Developers are loyal to solutions and technologies once they are happy with using them. It is rare to find a developer who is OK with jumping from PHP to Java to Ruby to C# to Python and in between Windows, Unix and Mac.

On the contrary - we do spend a large part of our online time bickering at each other that our favourite language is so much more powerful than anything else. Quite pointless, really, but it shows that developers have passion - and passion is a good thing.

The same happens with companies. You get Microsoft fanboys, Google enthusiasts, Yahoo fans, Apple disciples, Adobe followers and they all hardly ever mix without arguing with each other about why their favourite company is the best.

All this means that as soon as you start talking about your brand exclusively the cards are stacked against you – either you'll preach to a choir or get shot down in flames.

You work around that in a few ways:

The fun thing is that every company out there wants to do what you want to achieve - make developers happy using their products. Therefore it is important that you keep an eye on and in contact with the competition as much as it is important to be aware of what your own company is up to.

Example: A really interesting moment happened at a conference. I was part of a panel of JavaScript framework developers each representing a certain product. The audience was full of fans of all the different frameworks and eager to see a big fight on stage. The first thing we did though was tell the audience that there is no point in comparing and bickering as all frameworks want to do the same thing - make web development more predictable. We even pointed out what we appreciate the most about the other products. In the end the audience went home with a much more detailed picture about what each library does better than the other - not from the people building it but from their competition. Everybody won.

Show respect to the competition

You can't be a professional developer advocate and bad-mouth the competition at the same time. We all are professionals and work on projects to make people more effective. Different companies have different approaches and different internal red tape to battle. Pointing out weaknesses of the competition is a cheap shot.

You should also not forget that we are seemingly working in an industry that moves and shakes the world but a lot of this is inflation. The amount of people on the speaking, training and advocating market is small and whoever you meet will cross your path again. Better to work together than to annoy each other.

Showing respect and interest also means that - once you realise that you can trust another - you start sharing ideas, resources, conference opportunities and even give each other sneak previews of things to come. And that gives everybody an advantage and makes our jobs easier.

It also means that if you are not happy in your current company any longer, you already have a foot in the door at other opportunities. This also works the other way around: a tarnished reputation is tough to get rid of and will follow you around.

Acknowledge when the competition is better

This is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people - especially for marketing departments - but bear with me. If your competition has a better product than yours and people ask you which one is better admit that this is the case. Whilst this sounds like admitting defeat in reality it shows a few things you can use to your advantage:

Another thing to remember is that the product might be better but for a different audience. What gets developers excited does not necessarily mean end users can deal with it.

Example: When I started at Microsoft I took people by surprise by using a Macbook on stage. I’ve used Macs for a decade before that and I was used to them and more efficient using them. The company didn’t have any problem with it as it also changed a lot since the 90s. I now use both a Macbook and a Surface Laptop and I’m happy with either. The fun thing though was that being the Microsoft employee not exclusively using our own products I got people to ask about it. And this is the foot in the door you need in this job.

Know about the competition

This is a classic marketing, advertising or even development step: before you build or promote something look around and do a competitive analysis.

In the case of developer advocacy you need to be up to speed with what your peers do as you will constantly get questions about it. "How does this compare to X, the new product by Y?" is a common first question.

If you can answer that, your tech integrity gets quite a boost and - let's face it - it is fun to poke at the things our peers produce.

Build examples using and try out competitive products

Using services and products of your competitors is a great way to check several things:

Building something with a brand new API, service or library also helps your technological integrity and you can feed back problems you found to your peers in the other company. I've done that with several competitor products and actually managed to get to know the right people when I have questions that way.

If you find that a new service or product by another company complements one of yours nicely, build something that uses both and show that to the world - this will be beneficial for both and people see to mix products of various companies. You might even see that people who promote the other product will use your example - as it is already built.

Your biggest success as a developer advocate is to get developers to talk about your products and promote them for you. This is why you need to try your best to remove yourself from the brand of your company to be an example for people. Your company should be seen as interesting enough for you to work there, not to pay you to be excited.

Next: Prepare for outreach