11/8/2023

Developer Relations vs. Developer Marketing: Different Names for the Same Thing?

developer relationsdeveloper marketing
6 min read

My first exposure to Developer Relations was in 2018 when I launched a newsletter called CFP Land. I was speaking at technical conferences regularly, so I created the email list to help speakers like me find “calls for proposals”.

After meeting some of my 2500 subscribers, I realized that a good portion came from the field of Developer Relations or Developer Marketing.

As a software engineer, I knew that there were companies out there that wanted to reach people like me (web hosting, software testing, and continuous integration tools to name a few), but I didn’t understand the nuance between the many job titles they held until I crept into their inner circle.

After building Draft.dev and working with hundreds of Developer Relations and Marketing professionals, I feel much better equipped to explain these roles today. In this piece, I’d like to offer some perspective and hopefully help muddy the waters for those of you who might be newer to these fields.

Why Do Companies Want to Sell to Developers Anyway?

Broadly, there are two kinds of companies that sell things to software developers: “developer first” and “developer plus“ businesses.

James Parton does a good job defining the two terms, but in short, “developer first” companies sell software intended to be used for software development, like IDEs, specialized web hosting, or security tools. Some of these businesses have other stakeholders as well, but their go-to-market strategy revolves around selling to technical people first.

“Developer plus” companies sell primarily to non-technical stakeholders, but may have add-ons or portions of their product that are used by developers. An example might be a bank that also offers an API. While most of their customers will use the bank’s user interface to manage accounts, some power users may integrate the bank’s offerings into their own software using their API.

The distinction between these two types of companies is important for context, but in either case, they want to reach software developers to make them aware of and help them purchase their products.

With over 27 million software developers worldwide and demand growing steadily, it’s no surprise that companies are clamoring to build software for them. Developer-facing tools are inherently sticky as they reach into low-level functions in the business, and become essential for making product updates and maintaining trust with users.

Developer Relations vs. Developer Marketing

Both roles - Developer Relations and Developer Marketing - are a piece of the puzzle in reaching software developers, and when done correctly, they complement each other.

Software developers are a notoriously tough market to reach. I remember hating the constant barrage of cold emails and LinkedIn messages from recruiters when I was a software developer. My friends and I joked about how clueless these recruiters were, and we all knew the names of the firms with the worst reputations.

So, to avoid landing in the same spam folder as all these recruiters, companies selling to developers need a different approach. I’ve said this before, but the key to reaching developers is building trust, and one of the best ways to build that trust is through creating authentically helpful content and having genuine conversations with your target audience.

Enter Developer Relations

This is where Developer Relations most commonly enters the conversation.

Much like a Public Relations professional would interact with community members, press, and social media, Developer Relations professionals listen to software developers and act as a go-between for users and the company’s product and marketing teams.

This means Developer Relations (often shortened “DevRel”) requires a wide range of skills and knowledge, as Ivan Burazin, CEO and Co-Founder at Daytona, told me last year:

I like DevRel because it’s interdisciplinary…In general, DevRel lets me use my broad skill set every day, from storytelling to speaking, from planning to management, and from development and design. DevRel really is for the generalists at heart.

Many Developer Relations professionals have a technical background, which allows them to empathize with users and be a better advocate for their needs, but this isn’t always the case. As you’ll see later, every company defines and uses these job titles differently.

How Developer Marketing Fits In

With DevRels acting as the interface between customers and the company, you might wonder how Developer Marketing fits into the picture.

While marketing teams need to be in close contact with developer relations teams, they tend to be more proactive than reactive.

DevRels are actively joining the community and listening for feedback while Dev Marketers are pushing out product announcements, planning content campaigns, and creating collateral that helps developers understand how the product will fit into their workflow or existing software stack.

Admittedly, the difference between these two roles is often so subtle that they often overlap one another. Burazin pointed this out when describing the challenge of DevRel to me:

As DevRel overlaps, Marketing, Engineering, and Product, and if the borders between these departments are not well defined, you can find people intentionally or non-intentionally stepping on each other’s toes, which just makes that job harder.

That said, I’ve found that Developer Marketers tend to have a non-technical background more often than Developer Relations people. Dev Marketers tend to focus on using their marketing skills (SEO, running ads, writing content, building gated assets, etc.) in tandem with technical team members like engineers or DevRel teams to create marketing campaigns.

Every Org Chart Is Different

As I’ve alluded to, these delineations between Developer Marketing and Developer Relations are rather fluid and vary from company to company. I’ve met Developer Marketing professionals who were former engineers and Developer Relations professionals who have never written code in their life, and they seem to do just fine.

On top of that, some companies use entirely different job titles (like Developer Advocate or Developer Evangelist) instead. It can be really confusing for people new to the field or to smaller companies who are still figuring out which roles they need and when.

Finally, the reporting structure between Developer Relations and Developer Marketing can vary quite a lot. In some companies, DevRel falls under sales, in others product, in others marketing, and in others it reports directly to the CEO.

These divisions may seem arbitrary, but they also lead to some pretty bad conflicts of interest when done poorly. For example, a DevRel team that reports to sales will often struggle to justify time on efforts that don’t immediately contribute to qualified leads or more sales calls.

When Do You Hire Developer Relations vs. Developer Marketing?

Because Developer Relations and Developer Marketing are so similar and often overlapping, founders often ask me to help them figure out when they need one or the other. Like any good question, the answer is, “it depends,” but let me share my logic:

Developer First Companies

If your primary buyer is a software developer, you need dedicated Developer Marketing resources before you need a full-time Developer Relations person.

The reason is simple: without enough interested users or customers to engage with, the Developer Relations team will struggle to provide value and end up focusing on marketing tasks anyway. Besides, founders should be directly interacting with customers in the early days, and they should function as the first de facto DevRel people in the org.

Typically, DevRels come in when the business has enough users that founders cannot spend much time with them directly and they can justify the costs of a DevRel team that won’t immediately add marketing-qualified leads but will help steer the product and marketing efforts in the right direction for the long-term.

Developer Plus Companies

In companies that have a developer offering, but primarily sell to another business stakeholder, it makes more sense to start with Developer Relations.

Most developer plus companies already have established marketing channels for their products, so they just need to provide better support and awareness of their developer offerings. Developer Relations is great for this as they can leverage relationships with existing customers to solicit feedback and help drive the product forward.

Developer plus companies typically don’t build dedicated Developer Marketing teams until much later, when they open up the developer side of the product as a standalone offering.

Conclusion

Developer Relations and Developer Marketing are both important roles for companies looking to reach software developers, but the difference between these two roles is subtle and often muddied. Many DevRels I’ve met struggle because they’re expected to do marketing, and similarly, many Developer Marketers struggle because they don’t have the technical expertise or time to fill a Developer Relations’ shoes.

While every organization may define the two titles differently, the most important thing is a clear understanding of where they should focus their efforts. If you have your own working definitions of these roles or you think I’ve got it wrong, I’d love to hear from you. Find me on X to continue the conversation.

Author
Karl Hughes
Karl Hughes
Founder of Draft.dev

Karl is a former CTO turned founder of Draft.dev where his team has helped 150+ developer tools companies reach software engineers through high-quality technical content.