Alyss Noland, Head of DevRel^2 and PMM at Common Room, joins Corey on Screaming in the Cloud to discuss the value of community and best practices around scaling that value in the world of DevRel. Corey and Alyss discuss how DevRel is still a relatively new position, and how to show the true value of the DelRel position to other stakeholders in the company, as well as how to be a valuable asset to the developers in your community. Alyss shares best practices around understanding your customers’ needs, creating and nurturing a self-supporting community, and which metrics and activities have the most impact.
Alyss Noland is the head of Developer Relations Relations and Product Marketing at Common Room, an intelligent community-led growth platform. She previously led product marketing for Developer Experience at GitHub where she focused on open source community investment and helping engineering teams find success through development metrics and developer-focused research. She’s been working in tech since 2012 in various roles from Sales Engineering and Developer Advocacy to Product Marketing with companies such as GitHub, Box, Atlassian, and BigCommerce, as well as being an advisor at Heavybit.
Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.
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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud
. I’m Corey Quinn. I often wonder how to start these conversations, but sometimes it’s just handed to me and I don’t even have to do a whole lot of work. My guest today is Alyss Noland, who’s the Head of Developer Relations Relations and Product Marketing at Common Room
. Alyss, thank you for joining me.
Alyss: Thanks for having me, Corey. I’m really excited to be here.
Corey: So, developer relations relations. It feels like an abstraction that has been forced to be built on top of another abstraction that has gotten too complicated, so as best I can tell, you are walking around as a human equivalent of Kubernetes.
Alyss: Oh, gosh, I would really hope not to be a human equivalent of Kubernetes. I think that would make me an octopus. But—
Corey: Yeah, “What did you say about me?” Yeah.
Corey: “I didn't come here to be insulted, Quinn.” Yeah.
Alyss: No, like listen, I love octopodes. Which [tattoo 00:01:24] is which? So, developer relations relations. Yes, it’s an abstraction on an abstraction. A really critical level, it is how do I relate? Can I relate to people that are in the developer relations profession at large?
We are at the point at which this is a somewhat poorly-defined area that is continuing to grow. And there’s a lot of debates in that space and so I’m really excited to be at an organization that will give me a platform to try and move the industry forward.
Corey: Your relatively recent career history is honestly fascinating to me. You spent about a year and a half as a senior developer advocate at Box. And as anyone who’s ever tried it knows, it’s very hard to beat Box [beatboxing noises]. But you tried and went to GitHub, in which case, you basically transitioned pretty quickly from a Senior Product Marketing Manager to Director of Product Marketing, where you were the go-to-market lead for GitHub Copilot.
Alyss: Yeah, that was a really interesting project to be on. I started off at the technical preview back in 2021, launching that too—it ended up being with about a little over a million, two million folks in technical preview. And it’s fairly new to the market. There was nothing else—or at the time, there had been nothing else that was using a descendant of GPT-3. There was nothing else using a descendant of GPT-3 to generate suggestions for code to—there were a couple that were using GPT-2, but the amount of language coverage they had was a little bit limited, what they were suggesting was a little bit limited.
And it’s hard to say, like, highlight of my career, but at that point in time, I would say probably, highlight of my career to be able to work on something with that opportunity for impact.
Corey: As someone who was in the technical preview and now tried to be a paying customer of it, but I can’t because of my open-source work, it wound up giving it to me for free. I found it to be absolutely transformative. And I know I’m going to get letters and I don’t even slightly care because it’s not, “I’m going to tab-complete my application.” If a tool can do that, your application is probably not that complex. No, for me, what I find incredibly valuable is the ability to tab-complete through obnoxious boilerplate. CloudFormation, I am not subtweeting you; I am calling you out directly. You are wordy and obnoxious. Fix yourself.
And especially in languages that I don’t deal with day-to-day—because I’m not a full-time developer—I forget certain parameters or argument order or things like that and being able to effectively tab-complete is awesome for that use case. It’s not doing my job; it’s automating the crappy part of my job. And I absolutely love it for that.
Alyss: Yeah, and was really interesting working on a common portion of product marketing work is that we build messaging houses. We try to identify where’s the value to the user, to the organization at large, depending on, like, who it is we’re trying to sell to, how does that ladder up from, like, an IoT to a manager. And so, one of the things that I got really excited about as we started to see it—and there’s some great work that Dr. Eirini Kallaimvakou has published that I would definitely refer to if you’re interested in diving deeper into it—is the way in which Copilot and this, like, ability to improve the boilerplate experience, improve the boring shit—automate the boring shit, if you will—is about developer satisfaction. It’s not about making you build your commits faster or about having more lines of code that you like get deployed out; it’s about making your jobs suck less.
Corey: Well, if you spent, what was it roughly two years, give or take, at GitHub between your various roles—and yes, I’m going to pronounce it ‘GIF-ub’ because that’s my brand of obnoxious, so I’m going to go for it—you went to Common Room. Let’s begin there. What does Common Room do, exactly?
Alyss: So, Common Room is an intelligent community-led growth platform. And there’s a few things kind of packed into that really short description, but the idea is that we’ve seen all of these product-lead grows businesses. But at a critical point, and something we’ve seen at GitHub, which is a product-led growth company, it’s something that we’ve seen at Atlassian, Asana, you name half a dozen different, like, SaaS companies, self-hosted software, open-source, community is at the heart of it. And so, how do you nurture that community? How do you measure that community? How do you prove that the work that you’re doing is valuable?
And that’s what Common Room is setting out to do. And so, when I saw—like, they’re not the only person or organization in the market that’s doing this, but I think they’re doing it exceptionally well, and with really great goals in mind. And so, I’m enthused to try and facilitate that investment in community for more organizations.
Corey: One of the challenges that I have seen of products in the community space is it tended, historically, to go in really, I guess I’ll call them uncomfortable directions. In the before times, I used to host dinner parties near constantly here, and someone confide into me once—after, you know, six beers or so, because that’s when people get the excitingly honest—they mentioned that, “Yeah, I’m supposed to wind up putting these dinners into Salesforce”—or whatever the hell it was—“To track the contacts we have with influencers in this space.” And that made me feel so profoundly uncomfortable. It’s, you’re invited here to spend time with my friends and my family. You’re meeting my kids, it’s, yeah, this is just a go-to-market motion and you can [BLEEP] on out of here and never come back.
And I did not get that sense to be clear and I’m told the company wound up canceling that horrifying program, but it does feel like it’s very easy to turn an authentic relationship into something that feels remarkably sleazy. That said, Common Room has been around for a while and I have yet to hear a single accusation that you folks have come within a thousand miles of doing that. How do you avoid the trap?
Alyss: It’s a slippery slope, and I can’t say that Common Room creates any kind of like enforcement or silos or prevents organizations from falling into this trap. Fundamentally, the way in which community can be abused, the way in which these relationships can be taken advantage of, at least from the perception of the parties that initially built the relationship, is to take the context out of them, to take the empathy out of them, take the people out of them. And so, that is fundamentally left to the organization’s principles, it’s left to how much authority does community have within the business relative to a sales team. And so first, being able to elevate community in such a way to show that they are having that impact already without having to turn the community into a prospect pool is, I think, one of the critical first steps, and it’s something that we’ve been able to break through initially by connecting things like Slack, Discord, Twitter to show, here’s all these people talking about you, here’s all the things that they’re saying, here’s the sentiment analysis, and also, now we’re going to push that into Salesforce. So, you can see that this started out in community and it was fostered there. Now, you can see the ROI, you don’t need to go hitting up our community contacts to try and sell to them because we’re doing it on your behalf in a very real way.
Corey: Part of the challenge, I think, is that—and you’ve talked to me about this in previous conversations we’ve had—that so much of community is distilled down to a sales motion, which let’s be direct, it kind of sucks at, in some levels, because it’s okay, great, I’m here to talk to you about how community works. Well, in the AWS community, for example, the reason that formed and is as broad and fast as it is because AWS’s documentation is Byzantine and there’s a sort of shared suffering that we all get to commiserate over. And whenever AWS tries to take, “Ownership,” quote-unquote, of its community, right, that doesn’t actually work that way. They have community watering holes, but to my understanding, the largest AWS-centric Slack team is the Open Guide to AWS’s Slack team, which now has, at last count, 15,000 people in it. I’m lucky enough to be the community lead for that project.
But it was pre-existing before I got there and it’s great to be able to go and talk to people who are using these things. It doesn’t feel like it is owned, run, or controlled—because it’s not—by AWS themselves. It’s clear from the way that your product has evolved, that you feel similarly around that where it’s about being aware of the community rather than controlling the community. And that’s important.
Alyss: Absolutely. And one of the ways in which we, like, highlight this as soon as you’re in the product, is being able to show community responsiveness and then what percentage of those responses are coming from my team members. And frankly, as someone who’s previously set strategy for developer relations teams, for developer communities, what I want to see is community members responding to each other, community members knowing what’s the right place to look, what’s the right answer, how am I ensuring that they have the resources that they need, the answers that they need. Because at the end of the day, I can’t scale one-to-one; no one can. And so, the community being able to support itself is at the heart of the definition of community.
Corey: One of the other problems that I’ve seen historically, and I’ll call it the Chef problem because Chef had an incredibly strong community, and as someone who is deep in the configuration management space myself, but never use Chef, it was the one that I avoided for a variety of reasons at the time, it was phenomenal. I wound up going to ChefConf, despite not being a Chef user, just to spend time with some of the great people that were involved. The blunder that they made before they were acquired into irrelevance by progress—and to be fair, the industry changed direction toward immutable infrastructure in ways that were hard to foresee—but the problem is, they made was hiring their entire community. And it doesn’t sound like that would be a bad thing, but suddenly, everyone who was talking about the product had a Chef email address, and that hits very differently.
Alyss: It does. And it goes back to that point of trying to maintain those authentic relationships. And if we’re to step outside of tech, I have a background prior to tech in the video game industry, and that was a similar problem. Nearly every single community-made application, extension ends up getting acquired by some organization, like Curse, and then piped full of ads, or the person that you thought you could ask or to see build some other better experience of version control software, or a Git client ends up getting consumed into a large business and then the project never sees the light of day. And frankly, that’s not how you run community in my estimation.
My estimation is, if the community is doing things better than you are, take notes. Product management, pay attention. That’s something that is another aspect of doing developer relations is about checking in with those teams, about showing them evidence. And like, it so often ends up being qualitative in a way that doesn’t change people’s minds or their feelings, where people want to see quantitative numbers in order to say, “Oh, this is the business justification. Like, this is the ROI. This proves that this is the thing we should invest in.” And frankly, no. Like, sometimes it is a little bit more about stepping back and letting the organic empathy and participation happen without having to own it.
Corey: There’s a sense, I think that a lot of companies feel the need to own every conversation that happens around them, their product, et cetera, and you can’t. You just can’t, unless—to be direct—your company is failing. Just because if no one’s talking about you, then great, you’re the only ones talking about you. And you can see this from time to time and it’s depressing as hell when you have people who work for a company all tweeting the same cookie-cutter statement, and they get zero interaction except from a bot account. It’s sad.
Alyss: Yeah. And I’ve unfortunately seen this more times than I can count in community Slacks where people just, like, copy-paste whatever marketing handed to them, and I would be shocked if they got any engagement at all. Because that’s… cool. What do I know about you? Why do I care about this event? Have you personalized it to me?
And yeah, you don’t want the organization to be the only one talking about you. If you are then you’ve already failed in this, you know, product-led growth motion. You’ve kind of—if we want to get into the murky water of NPS, like, nobody’s going and telling their friends about your product [laugh]. And the thing that’s so valuable is the authentic voice. It’s the, “I’m excited to talk about this and I like it enough to tell you what I like about it.” I like it enough to tell you about this use case that might never seen the light of day, but because we’re having a conversation between ourselves, it can all be personalized. It can all be about what’s going on between us and about our shared experiences. And that is ten times more powerful than most Twitter-promoted ads you’ll ever see.
Corey: So, I want to unpack a little bit about not developer relations as such, but developer relations relations because I can mostly understand—badly—what product marketing is, but developer relations relations—or as you’d like to call it developer relations squared—that’s something new. I’ve always called DevRel to be devrelopers, and people get annoyed enough at that. What is that newfound layer of abstraction on top of it?
Alyss: Well, there’s several things that I’m going to end up—and I say end up; I’m six weeks into the role, so I have a lot of high hopes for where I hope this goes. And one of those is things, like, we don’t have a very shared understanding and shared definition of what developer advocacy even is, what is developer relations? Does developer marketing belong under that umbrella? How should organizations approach developer relations? How should they value it? Where should it, you know, belong in terms of business strategy?
And there’s an opportunity for a company whose business it is to elevate this industry, this career path, if you will, where we can spend the time, we can spend the money to say, here’s what success looks like. We’ve interviewed all these groups, we’ve talked with the leaders in this space that are making it their jobs to think about this. Here’s a set of group-developed recommendations for how the industry should mature. Or here’s an open-source set of job descriptions and requirements. And like, let’s get to some level of shared understanding.
So, as an example of, kind of, where I’m leading to with all of this, and some of the challenges that developer relations faces is the State of Developer Relations report that just came out. There’s a significant number of people that are coming into developer advocate, developer relations roles for the first time, they have one to two years of experience, they’re coming into programs that have been around for one to two years, and so what does that tell you? That tells you you’re bringing in people with no experience to try to establish brand new programs, that they’re being asked to by their business, and they don’t have the vocabulary, the tools, the frameworks in which to establish that for themselves. And so, they’re going to be swayed by, you know, the tides of business, by the influences of their leadership without having their own pre-built notions. And so, how do we give them that equipment and how do we elevate the practice?
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Corey: It feels like so much of the DevRel discourse has turned into, one, we define it by what is not, and two, it doesn’t matter how you’re measuring it, you’re measuring it wrong. I feel like that is, I guess we’ll call it counterproductive, for lack of a better descriptor. It feels like there’s such a short-sighted perspective on all of this, but at the same time, you’ve absolutely got to find ways to articulate the value of DevRel slash community to the business otherwise, it turns into a really uncomfortable moment when, okay, time to cut costs. Why should we keep your function over a different function? If there’s not a revenue or upside or time to market or some form of value story tied to that, that the business can understand that isn’t just touchy-feely, it’s a very difficult path forward from there. How do you see it?
Alyss: I agree with you and I’ve, frankly, run into this problem several times in my career, and every time I’ve been a developer advocate. It’s, you know—and where I’ve found the most success is not in saying, “Here’s exactly the numbers that I’m going to be constantly looking at. I’m going to try to produce this many pieces of content, or I’m absolutely not speaking at events. And that’s not my job. Or I’m not writing code. That’s not my job.”
It’s about understanding what is driving the business forward. Who do I need participation and buy-in from and where am I hoping to go? Like, what does a year out from this look like? What does three years out from this look like? At Box, we do not want to be the API governance standard. That is not our job. That’s not where we sit within engineering.
That’s frankly, if you really want to get into it, internal developer advocacy because it can influence the impact on the community. It is not the core focus and there are probably people better equipped and better educated on the core application. Big commerce, platform ecosystem, platform flywheel developers are fundamentally a part of continuing to grow the business and how do I go make that point to sales, how do I go make that point to partners, how do I go make that point to customer success, so that I can build a function that has more than one person. And so, I think to kind of bring it back to the larger question, that is where I see our greatest challenge is that we haven’t given ourselves the vocabulary or the framework to understand the level of complexity that DevRel has become in being across so many industries, and being in B2B, and being in business to developer, and being in business to consumer. No one size fits all and we need to stop trying to treat it as though it can be.
Corey: I think that there is a, how to put it, a problem in terms of how Twitter views a lot of these things. Someone wound up finally distilling it down for me in relatively recent times with a very resonant quote, which was simply put, that Twitter is not where you go for nuance. Twitter is where you go to be righteous. And I realized, oh, my God, that describes a good 80% of the things I’ve put up there. Like when I talk about how when companies do this thing to their staff and it’s crappy, I am not necessarily for a nuanced debate, although of course there’s always nuance and edge cases in the rest.
As a counterpoint, whenever I wind up talking about things on Twitter and speak in generalities, I get a whole bunch of people pushing back with a, “Well, what about this edge case? That renders your entire point invalid.” And, ugh, not really. It feels like one of the casualties of the pandemic has been a sense of community in a sense of humans relating to other humans. I think we’re all tired of the Zoom calls from hell I got to see you a couple of weeks before this recording at Monktoberfest in Portland, Maine, and oh, my God, dealing with people face to face, it was so much richer, at least from my perspective, compared to everything that we’ve been able to do during the pandemic. Am I alone on that? Are you seeing this across the board? Where companies are talking about this?
Alyss: I will say with confidence, you’re not alone in this. Whether or not companies are talking about it is also across the board. How rich are those understandings? How rich are those conversations? Because trying to step back as a brand is not really a way.
Like, having nuance, being real, been community members, like that’s not a way in which I think companies can participate in a way that feels truly authentic. That’s why you need faces. That’s why you need people. That’s why you need folks whose job it is to do this. But in terms of things are lost, like, Twitter is not the right place to be having these conversations. It’s not the right place in which to necessarily relate to people, absolutely.
When you get distilled down all of your interactions into oh, I’ve got a notification. Oh, I have a checkmark, and so I have, like, better moderation tools. Oh, like, I made a statement and I don’t want to hear a solution for it. We get all of these, uncurated experiences that are so dissatisfying that it does make us miss being around people who can read body language, that can understand my immediate relationship to them in spaces that we choose to be in, whereas Twitter is this big panopticon where we can just get yelled at and yell at each other. And it loves to amplify those conversations far more than any of the touchy-feely, good news success stories.
Corey: When you take a look across the entire landscape of managing DevRel programs and ensuring that companies are receiving value for it, and—by which I mean, nurturing the long-term health of communities because yes, I am much more interested in that than I am in next quarter’s numbers, how do you see that evolving, particularly with the recent economic recession or correction or drawback or everything’s on fire, depending upon who it is you talk to? How do you see that evolving?
Alyss: It goes back to what I said earlier about, I can speak in generalities, there will be specifics to various organizations, but at a fundamental part, like, I’ll kind of take a step back and maybe make some very strong statements about what I think DevRel is, in a regard, which is, without documentation, without support, you don’t have a product. And if you don’t have folks going out and understanding what it is your customers need, and especially when those customers are maybe all the time or sometimes developers, and understanding what it is that they’re saying and truly how having empathy for what’s going on in their day-to-day, what task are they trying to complete, how relevant is this to them, if you don’t invest in that, when that happens, you’ve lost the plot. And so, in those instances, unfortunately, that’s a conversation with leadership team. Your leadership doesn’t fundamentally understand the value and maybe it’s worth it to make the argument in favor of to illustrate that without this feedback loop, without this investment in the educational journey of developers, without the investment in what is going on in our product, and where have we allowed ourselves to remain ignorant of what is happening in the day-to-day of our users. We need those folks.
Product managers are in sprints, they’re in standups. They’re doing, like, strategic planning and their yearly planning. We need a group who is rewarded to care about this but also is innately driven to do so as well. And that’s not something that you can make. And it’s not something that we otherwise see. It’s part of why we have such an absence in good developer marketing is because marketers aren’t paid well enough to ever have learned the skills to be developers, and so there’s no skills transfer.
Corey: One last topic that I want to get into something you’ve only been doing for a short while, but you’ve become an advisor at Heavybit
, which is a VC firm. How did that come about and what do you do?
Alyss: So currently, I—I’ll do the super-high level. What I do right now is I host office hours with seed startups and Series A that are in the dev tool space. And we generally talk about developer relations, a little bit in developer marketing go-to-market strategies. And it’s super enriching for me because I love hearing about different experiences and problems and, like, areas of practice. But it was really interesting, and a little bit of a make-your-own-luck-and-opportunity type deal.
Where I live in Austin, Texas; I do not live in the Bay Area, I don’t have all those connections, I’ve been a bit distant from it. And I saw someone who had accepted a role that I had interviewed for, end up in some of their content. And I was like, “They’re doing a great job. They definitely deserve to be there, but I also had similar qualifications, so why should I also be there?” And I found someone, his name’s Tim, on LinkedIn, who runs their events. And I reached out and I said, “Hey, Tim, how would you like a new advisor?” And so, Tim responded back and we—
Corey: Knock knock. Who’s there? It’s me.
Alyss: Yeah, exactly. It’s—and it was just, I want this thing to happen. How do I make it happen? I ask.
Corey: And what does it day-to-day that look like? How much time does it take? What do you do exactly?
Alyss: Yeah. I mean, right now, it’s about five hours every quarter. So, I spend anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour with various organizations that are a part of Heavybit’s portfolio, talking with them through their motion to go general availability, or they want to start participating in events, or they want to discover what are the right events for them to—or, like, DevOpsDays, should we participate in that? Should we hire a DevRel person? Should we hire a product marketing person? Just helping them sort wheat from chaff in terms of, like, how to proceed.
And so, it’s relatively, for me, lightweight. And Heavybit also gives us the opportunity to contribute back in blog posts, participate in podcasts and be able to have some of those richer conversations. So, I have a set of bookmarks, so there’s over 100, bookmarks long, that is fully curated across several different categories. That was my first blog post was diving into a few of those where I think are critical areas of developer relations. What are some of the conversations on DevRel metrics? How do I think about setting a DevRel strategy for the first time? How do I do my first DevRel hire? And so, I wouldn’t even call it a second job. It’s more of a getting to, again, enrich my own experience, see a wider variety of different problems in this space and expand my own understanding.
Corey: I really want to thank you for being so generous with your time. If people want to learn more about what you’re up to, how you view the world, and basically just come along for the ride as you continue to demonstrate a side of tech that I don’t think we get to see very often, where can they find you?
Alyss: I am@PreciselyAlyss on Twitter
, as well as Twitch
. Aside from that, I would not recommend looking for me.
Corey: Excellent. Always a good decision. I will put links to that in the [show notes 00:30:00]. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
Alyss: Thanks, Corey.
Corey: Alyss Noland, Head of Developer Relations Relations and Product Marketing at Common Room. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice along with an angry, insulting comment belittling community and letting the rest of us know by observation just why you’ve been thrown out of every community to which you’ve ever been a part.
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