Uncommon Q&A: Tweeting with Mary Thengvall

  • The Uncommon Team

    December 1st, 2021

At Common Room and Uncommon, we enjoy celebrating and learning from inspiring community leaders.

Mary Thengvall is a connector of people at heart, personally and professionally. She loves digging into the strategy of how to build and foster developer communities and has been doing so for over 10 years. Mary is the Director of Developer Relations at Camunda, an open source process automation platform. She's the author of the first book on Developer Relations: The Business Value of Developer Relations.

In the lead up to our Uncommon Book Club event with her, we held a Twitter Q&A with Mary, including questions submitted by the Uncommon community. You can see the real-time thread here, and we transcribed the conversation so you can read it below. Check out Mary's list of inspiring community leaders, what she looks for when hiring for her team, and where the DevRel function should sit within a company.

Have someone you’d like to nominate for the next session? Or questions to ask the experts? Let us know on Twitter or join the Uncommon Slack.

To kick things off, we love to pay things forward — shouting out fellow community leaders whenever possible. Who are you most inspired by when it comes to the DevRel community?

Back in the day, I feel like I was talking daily with Matt Broberg, Ashley Willis, Nathen Harvey, and Dave Josephsen. The four of us all got started around the same time, learning from each other and relying on trial and error to figure out what worked and what didn't.

These days, I read everything Carrie Melissa Jones publishes, even if it's not specific for tech! It always gets me thinking from a different angle. Bear Douglas is someone else I know I can always go to -- she has such a depth of experience & is great at asking insightful questions.

And of course, I'm incredibly inspired by my team at @Camunda! I never want to be the smartest one in the room, and I'm always looking for people who have a unique way of approaching something or working through projects, so I'm constantly learning from them! 🤗

Inspired by community member @pachicodes: What do you look for when hiring for a DevRel position? What role does community management play in that criteria?

Great question! I'm looking for people who are excellent at what they're passionate about. For #DevRel professionals, one of those passions needs to be enabling developers, but how they do it is up to them!

Other things I look for:

  • Empathy - able to relate to a variety of individuals
  • An ability to explain complex topics in an easy-to-understand way
  • Autonomy - incredibly important for a distributed team in particular
  • The desire to work across teams to accomplish a goal

To be clear, I'm not looking for people who do all of these things perfectly! Rather, I'm looking for folks who are able and willing to learn/grow. If you have a desire to continue improving your skills and are open to feedback, you'll go a long way in this industry! I think we look around at the folks who are 20+ years into their career & think we must be just like them. You don't! This is why I have an "associate" position on the Camunda DevRel Career Path. Everyone deserves a starting place.

One of our all-time favorite questions (because will there ever be one right answer?): Where do you think the DevRel function should sit within a company’s org structure?

Mary recorded video snippets here and here to answer this question. Her response is also transcribed below.

So I love this question. As some of you may know, at Camunda we report directly to the CTO, and sit in our Products area, so it includes product management, product design, technical support, engineering, and DevRel. And I think this is super important because we're able to set goals that align with the other technical teams, the roadmap, and the product that our community is really engaging with on a daily basis. If you can't do that, I would say the best fit I've seen is under Product, because the most important things you're doing internally is sharing that feedback, advocating for your community users, advocating for the people who are using your proudct on a regular basis. And so being able to work closely with the Product team and being able to feed into their roadmap is super important.

One thing I will say as a follow-up, if you aren't able to be your own independent department and you aren't able to be in Product, or even if you are one of those two things, the most important thing to do above all is to make sure the goals that you have and the initiatives you're working on as a team relate back to the company's goals. Because if they do, then you're able to point to the value your team is providing, no matter where you sit in the organization. If you don't, you run the risk of being pigeonholed into the various metrics other teams are using to prove their value. And that's not gonna be a good fit, because DevRel is a mix of product, marketing, support, and customer success and all of those things, so we don't fit solidly into one or the other. But if we can still point back to "here's the company goal that we're pushing toward and that we're really furthering" then that can be helpful.

At what point in the product development lifecycle should DevRel be formally built out? Shoutout to @benry for this one ❤️

Great question! I'm going to give you one of the most common answers (my apologies)...it depends 🤪 I know some 5-person startups w/ a full-time #DevRel pro and other 200+ companies that don't. It really depends on your goal & audience + how big a community you already have.

For most startups, your original engineers and/or product folks fill the DevRel role nicely, listening to customers, building out roadmaps, writing documentation, etc. But if you want your Eng team to focus more closely on the code, hiring a Dev Advocate to focus on docs, onboarding, sample apps, etc. could be useful pre-launch in order to ensure you have a good dev experience once you go live. In other cases, you'll want an Advocate/Community Manager who has a strong foothold in the particular community you're wanting to reach in order to build awareness.

Just don't be "too late" -- if you're not engaging with your community at all and the founders/investors are wondering why the product isn't succeeding, I think you've already found your answer! It'll be a long hard road back to success, but it's worth it.

This comes straight from @bitsondatadev: How do you think about the customer journey when it comes to open source (or free tier) users?

"Customer journey" can mean a lot of different things, but let me see if I can tackle this in a way that's helpful for you 🙂 I believe strongly that an excellent experience (easy-to-follow onboarding, quick display of value, etc.) can lead to developers adopting the product.

Open source *can* fill that role, but often, companies use open source as a buzzword to pull developers into the product, but then fail to actually maintain the code or engage the contributors and amplify their work. Similarly, a free tier *can* fill that role, but is sometimes pared down so much that you can't actually get a feel for how something works or what the true product value is.

The key is to know what problems your audience is facing and address those pain points quickly.

If an open source experience or a free version of the software will do that and is well-maintained and/or part of the end/enterprise product as it is @Camunda, great! That can start the "flywheel" going and get people adopting the product quickly.

The key, once people have adopted the product, is to get them engaged w/ your community (forums, office hours, contributing content and showing off their solutions, etc.) in order to get to know them better so you can continue to meet and advocate for their needs in the future.

Something we'll touch on a bit more this Thursday (book club, be there!), but a great Q from @MMikeMMa: What’s one key takeaway you can share on what makes developer communities unique vs. other kinds of communities?

Great last question before I have to run! Honestly, dev communities aren't all that different from other communities <braces for the hate mail>. The key is to make sure you can relate to the community, which in this case, means being able to speak to technical topics.

I look for a good variety of technical abilities on my team -- from people who have held jobs as developers in the past, to people who are tech-savvy and understand the high-level aspects of the product from a technical angle.

I break down the different roles and what I'm looking for as far as technical abilities in a blog post. The thing I care about most is whether these individuals are able to relate to our developer community on a technical level as well as a personal level:

  • Do they handle frustrating situations with empathy?
  • Do they know the right people to send the community member to internally once their knowledge is tapped out?
  • Do they have the people-skills to listen for community member's passions and identify members introduce to each other?
  • And perhaps most importantly: Do they have the ability to clearly and professionally communicate feedback from a community member to a team internally in a way that the internal team will understand not only the feedback, but the importance of it?

And a bonus question from @swyx: How do you think about the business value of sending DevRels to in-person conferences?

This is a very timely question! Virtual events are a fantastic way to meet a lot of people & bring folks together who might not be able to meet in person. However, it all depends on your goals.

For me personally, I've found that speaking at virtual events works well for my team. Sponsoring virtual events on the other hand, usually isn't worth our time and money. @Camunda doesn't have the same name-recognition as some other companies, so if we're sponsoring an event to gain awareness, it often doesn't work in our favor.

However, I've known many people who have had great experiences sponsoring online events! So again, it depends 😉 In-person events on the other hand, offer a large amount of value to us, from getting to know new community members who swing by the booth to connecting w/old friends.

Another huge thank you to Mary for taking the time to answer those questions, and to our Uncommon community for submitting great ones. We’re excited to do more of these Q&As with experts across community-led growth, so keep an eye out for who’s next and get your own questions ready.

Until then, you can find us on Twitter and join us on Slack.

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