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Developer Relations: The Developer’s Voice

Editor’s note: This week’s developer relations post focuses on the history of developer relations via Acquia’s own VP of Corporate Communications (and living, breathing Wikipedia), David Churbuck.

My first encounter with Silicon Valley happened in the mid-1980s as a very green reporter for PC Week. I was sent west from Boston on a tour of the Valley’s top local area networking companies to get a crash course in LAN architectures. A lot of the companies I visited are long gone -- Corvus, 3Com, Novell, Ungermann-Bass -- but by the mid-point of the tour I had learned one very important lesson: Marketers absolutely suck as sources, but engineers tell it like it is.

At one company in Santa Clara I was met in the lobby by the head of marketing (I don’t think the CMO title was invented until the 90s) He personified Warren Zevon’s description of the Werewolf of London; his hair was perfect. He sat me down in a conference room, turned on an overhead projector, and started taking me through a series of IBMers called “foils”, which were basically analog Powerpoint slides. I was getting hit with the “corporate overview.” I left confused, awash in cliches, and none of it actually made it into a PC Week story. It wasn’t until I found an actual engineer -- Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet -- did I finally understand how a “bus” topology worked on a network versus a “ring” or a “star.”

If I could find a person patient enough to explain token ring architectures or the Ethernet bus topology in terms I could understand (thank you Bob Metcalfe) then I could probably find the right words to communicate that to the readers of PC Week and later Forbes.

Huffman Codes and Obfustication

Sometime around 1991, I was asked by an editor to write a story about some codes that TV Guide added to its television show listings for a technology called Gemstar. The codes were simple strings of digits of varying lengths. Surely there is some logic to those codes, the editor mused. “Go figure them out.” I called Gemstar and they told me that was a highly proprietary code and there was no way they would comment or help me figure them out. So I picked up the phone and called Professor Ronald Rivest at MIT. This is one of the preeminent cryptographers in the world, one of the inventors of the RSA algorithm. I asked him to open the Boston Globe and turn to the TV listings. “See those codes? What do they mean?”

I heard him scrounge around for that day’s paper and he came back on the line. “Oh, those are Huffman Codes. Call David Huffman, he’ll explain.”

And Huffman did explain the codes to me clearly, succinctly, and in words even I -- a liberal arts major -- would understand and be able to put into words the mythical reader of Forbes (a single reader the editor, Jim Michaels, referred to as “Fred the Dentist”) could in turn understand. Huffman was gracious and helped me through the editing and fact checking process, insuring my translation of his explanation of Huffman coding with its trees and branches would make sense to any layman. From that point forward, I skipped talking to marketers except to schedule time with the engineers in their companies.

Now I’m a marketer. Worse yet, a “content marketer.” Marketers dissemble. Marketers prevaricate. They can’t resist the urge to take perfectly clear, concise terms (like “lie” or “fib” or “BS”) and imbue them with some creative magic or obfustication. Why settle on a simple four-letter word when there are so many more florid, aspirational ones to choose from?

The importance of the developer’s critical ear in communicating the impact and value of a technology can’t underestimated. The influence of the technologist in contemporary organizations and corporations is rising as demand for very specialized computer science and engineering talent gets more and more acute.

The Era of the New Kingmakers

Steve O’Grady is a great analyst and observer of technology, especially open source projects, developer tools, and the emerging art of developer relations. His book, published by O’Reilly in 2014 -- The New Kingmakers -- is one of the most important pieces on the changing nature of technology marketing since Geoffrey Moore wrote Crossing the Chasm. If you’re selling technology then your future depends on understanding the essential truth:

There is no such thing as developer marketing.

I met O’Grady at during my time at Lenovo in 2006 when his firm, Redmonk, contacted Lenovo’s CMO Deepak Advani to talk about the potential of a Thinkpad configured for developers.In other words, a Thinkpad that didn’t come with a Windows license. PC makers like Dell, HP and Lenovo never dared poke Microsoft’s taboo against shipping “bare metal” PCs without a Windows license attached. Developers -- especially those in the open source community -- railed against paying that “Microsoft tax” when they were only going to wipe the OS and install their favorite flavor of Linux in its place. Their patron saint, Richard Stallman at the Free Software Foundation, was putting pressure on Lenovo to open up the documentation and source code of the Thinkpad’s BIOS.

So O’Grady and his partner James Governor came to Lenovo with a fascinating insight: Go to Google. Set the option to display the maximum number of results, and search on “ThinkPad.” So we did that, ran the search, printed out the results and after taping the pages together into a long snake, I started to categorize the results into a few broad buckets with different colored highlighters. Green for press mentions and reviews. Red for business results and our own content. Yellow for technical stuff like documentation, support, and specs.

The net result was a whole lot of yellow. Of the top 250 results, the vast majority were very technical in nature and further digging yielded an interesting discovery. Unbeknownst to the Thinkpad team, open source developers, in the interest of efficiency, had by default settled on a single Thinkpad -- one of the T-series -- as the base laptop for their development so they wouldn’t have to write hundreds of drivers for different vendors’ machines. Stallman was banging on the doors asking for technical specs for that machine’s BIOS -- and having spent a very entertaining evening with Richard when I was a reporter at Forbes -- I started corresponding with him. Asking the engineers at Lenovo to give Stallman what he wanted didn’t go over very well. So the free software movement eventually open sourced its own BIOS: Libreboot.

Out of the Shadows

Developers don’t mess around with platitudes and promises. They want the specs and they want the source code. They want to pry open the lid and look inside to see what is going on. You can hit them with your brand’s “power positions” and “mission statements.” Sure, you can be a inbound marketer and give the world some “lovable marketing content” while you blog about “Ten Reasons Why Miley Cyrus Would Love Funnel Flipping Marketing” but the most technical people at those “target accounts” that your marketing department are trying to influence and cajole with retargeting, lead gen, display ads and paid search aren’t paying attention to that crap. They look at Powerpoint the way a Cub Scout regards poison ivy; don’t touch it and avoid it entirely if possible. They want to download, install, and run your stuff for a while and when they are good and ready they want to ask some very specific questions from the engineers who built it.

The past ten decades has seen an inversion in the power and influence of technologists in the selection, purchase and deployment of technology. The “shadow IT” of the 2000s was well described by Tim O’Reilly as developers sneaking personal laptops into the office so they could have access to the tools and communications denied them by their corporate IT overlords. The procurement of technology -- up until 2010 or so -- was a mating ritual between sales teams and buyers that took place on golf courses and in steakhouses. Then came open source and developers could download software on their own. Everything changed.

As companies make crucial decisions about the technologies in their “stack”; they turn to the most technical people in the organization for their blessing. Open source models and the principles of agile development, continuous integration and cloud-based architectures have turned old approaches to tech marketing on their head, and the result is the influence and power of the developer is multiplying. Resistance is futile.

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