Matt Makai on Developer Relations (Scaling Tech Podcast Ep6)

Aug 23, 2022 | Developers, Team Management

Matt Makai joins us to discuss Developer Relations and Developer Evangelists, their roles in tech companies, and how to hire for them. Matt has been at Twilio since 2014, where he currently is the Senior Director of Builder Content, and he leads teams that bring all of their excellent developer content to their users. Matt also founded Full Stack Python ten years ago, which is a great place for you to learn more about building, deploying and operating Python applications.

Matt talks about what is Developer Relations and the types of companies that need these roles to engage with their developers, as well as how any engineering team can best utilize the Developer Relations team at SaaS companies whose products they work with. Matt explains how Developer Relations can be looked at a low-cost way of acquiring customers, as opposed to a more traditional marketing initiative. Matt also discusses the importance of looking for empathy in candidates for a Developer Relations role since they have to put themselves in the shoes of their users. Finally, Matt talks about how any developer can begin to hone their own skills at technical content development, as a way to improve their own personal brand and professional experience.

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Show notes with links to jump ahead are below

Show Notes from Episode 6 – Matt Makai on Developer Relations
Timestamp links will open that part of the show in YouTube in a new window
  • 00:00 Arin and David start off with a discussion about the weather in Costa Rica, and how their national team just qualified for the World Cup. The World Cup is an exercise in diplomacy at AgilityFeat where our team is spread across so many countries. In previewing the conversation with Matt, David notes how Developer Relations is a two-sided market: It brings marketing benefit to the company who employs the Developer Relations team, and it brings educational value to their customers and developers who use their APIs.
  • 04:00 Arin introduces Matt as an old friend of his from grad school, and through his work as founder of and as Senior Director of Builder Content at Twilio.
  • 04:55 Matt provides some background on what Twilio does and how developers use their communication APIs, and what his role is there. Their APIs allow developers to build creative communication abilities and cusotmer experiences directly into their apps. Think of ridesharing apps where you might have a call with your driver built into the app.
  • 06:40 Arin notes how developer focused Twilio always has been, and the importance of that in their brand and marketing. Matt explains what is Developer Relations. It’s typically for B2B companies that offer some sort of API or machine to machine interface. This role helps developers to discover the solutions to problems they face in building their application, such as how to build Two Factor Authentication into an app. It tends to be a marketing function which helps developers to better use your products.
  • 09:00 Matt talks about the different ways you can approach Developer Relations as a form of Technical Evangelism. Guy Kawasaki gets credit for starting this in his days at Apple, and the role has evolved and taken off during the 2010s with companies like Twilio and Stripe. The role doesn’t have to be based in marketing, and definitely has a technical focus, but is often positioned within marketing because they are most interested in the metrics generated around the content.
  • 11:00 How does a company know if it needs Developer Relations roles? Matt talks about how these could be external or internal roles. External is focused on helping your customers use your services, and what most people think of. Often these roles help customers to experiment with their product and confirm it will meet their needs before they spend a lot of money. You can think of Developer Relations as a low-cost way to acquire new customers, which is much lower cost than things like Facebook Ads. An Internal Evangelist might work at big companies with thousands of engineers. In this role, they are helping to educate internal technical staff on how to use the different aspects of their system architecture.
  • 14:30 How should an engineering manager and their team interact with the Developer Relations teams of companies they work with? It’s important to choose the API you use wisely since it carries a lot of risk. Engage with the evangelists of companies you’re considering to help you see how much that company really cares about their customers. Is this API the core of their business, or just a side project that they won’t really support well. Matt gave the example of how Netflix used to have an API but were never fully committed to it, and now it’s gone. Seeing that a company has a good Developer Relations team helps to assure you as an engineering manager that this company is in it for the long haul and will support your team in the use of their APIs.
  • 17:30 Matt talks a little more about the Internal Evangelist role, which is more like a Trainer role which would be in an Enterprise Architecture group instead of marketing. As an Enterprise Architect in modern development, you need to be open to the use of external APIs and SaaS products. An internal evangelist will help educate internal teams on which APIs the company approves of and has contractual relationships with, and how those APIs should be used in that company’s internal work. The messaging should be focused on enticing developers to use approved APIs.
  • 20:15 Matt brings up the importance of empathy as a skillset for those in a Developer Relations role. Anyone in this role should have been a developer themselves in the past (and current), so that they can better relate to the developers they are writing for.
  • 21:00 David brings up how important the positioning of content is, and understanding this aspect of marketing is very important for a Developer Evangelist. You have to produce lots of content that is focused on actual value to the developers, and then the value to the business comes as a side effect of delivering that value. It’s about education and helping, not being too salesy. Here again, Matt emphasizes how the best companies use empathy in their messaging to developers.
  • 23:20 David talks about the new balance between companies and software developers, and how hard it is to recruit and hire talented developers. These potential development hires also look at the public facing technical content of a company to decide if they want to work for them or not. David sees this as a necessity, to show the cool things about your technology will help you with recruiting also. Matt notes that this also helps to set up developers for success in a company, and considering how much developers can cost, then that can have a big return on the investment made in that developer.
  • 27:15 David talks about internal developers in an enterprise company with a complicated code base, and how a developer-first approach can help those companies. Matt agrees with the importance of empowering developers, and not putting them on death march projects. Software developers are creative problem solvers, and if you empower them, they will generate so much value for your business. Treat them as creatives and don’t just give them a requirements document, and then good things will come out of that.
  • 30:25 Arin talks about how content marketing can also work well for services businesses, and how we use it in our other business at This content helps us to not only get new clients, but also to recruit developers to work with us. So these concepts that Matt discusses for a Developer Relations role can also help in many settings for other growing teams. Matt relates a couple of stories of how he’s read the technical content of people before he worked with them and it gave him more confidence in working with that company or that person. Writing your own technical content is also a great way to make your name in the industry and network with others.
  • 33:50 David asks Matt to talk more about how developers can create their own content, since he has seen the best developers we work with have often already been good at developing their own technical content to improve themselves. Matt feels you should be intentional about when and how you create content as a developer – it depends on the stage of life you’re at and how much time you have available. It’s a great way for a developer to learn and stay motivated, but also may not work for those who have families and other commitments outside work. You can choose to invest in yourself that way at different points in your career or based on how much creative energy you have at that time. Be intentional about it.
  • 37:35 Arin notes you can be a great developer without being a great writer, but for those who are new to content development and want to learn more, how can someone learn to write well? Is it an innate skill or something that can be learned? Matt says you first have to have the technical credibility, and the creative drive to want to produce content. Most developers already have natural curiousity, and that can also show up in the non-technical hobbies of a candidate. There is a non-negotiable attribute though, which Matt says is humility. You need humility to recognize that the more you learn, the less you know. You can be confident in your development abilities and experience, but also you need to always recognize there is more you don’t know and that others will have good technical ideas too. Matt advises to take your insecurities about what you don’t know, and instead turn that into humility about what you can learn. This is why Matt screens for empathy, humility, and technical credibility when hiring for Developer Relations roles. The writing itself can be taught.
  • 41:15 Arin switches gears to learn more about Matt’s site Full Stack Python, which is where he honed a lot of his content development skills. Matt shares how he started the site in 2012 because he was interested in Python and full-stack development was a key job trend at the time. He started it over a holiday break. He started out mainly talking about Python developments and Web Server Gateway Interfaces, which were not being written about a lot at the time and wasn’t as widely adopted as today. He used Pelican, a static website generator and hosts it off AWS S3. It still has hundreds of thousands of readers, even though he is not working on it every day anymore. Matt found it to be more about writing than developing, and currently he’s trying to do more development because his job at Twilio is now more about managing than development.
  • 44:38 Matt talks about PlushCap, another side project he’s enjoying now which is a Django application he built that is hosted on Digital Ocean with CloudFlare. This is a tool to show data analysis about content management metrics for different SaaS companies. It’s a great way to scratch his itch to code more, which is a very helpful way to stay fresh as an engineering manager.
  • 47:00 Matt talks about being a developer in a marketing organization, and how marketing organizations have so much data. Most well run marketing groups are more data driven than engineering organizations, at least excluding the monitoring/alerting side of engineering. Many engineers are making architectural decisions based on trends instead of data, such as deciding which front end framework to use.
  • 48:10 David talks about how you can never expect to sit down and instantly write great content. Matt’s advice is simply to do it every day, especially as you learning. This helps avoid the guilt and stress of not posting for a while. Even if it’s just taking 5 minutes to rewrite a sentence to make it more clear. Some days that’s good enough, and other days it leads to spending a couple hours of creating great content. You’ll never know if you’re going to be creatively productive that day unless you start. You can also consider setting a specific time and place each day where you do your writing, to help create the mental focus. Once you start to write regularly, you get to know yourself better and can tell when something you’re writing is of really high value to your audience.
  • 52:20 We conclude the episode, and if you want to follow more of Matt’s work then check out MattMakai on Twitter and Github, as well Full Stack Python and the article listed below!

Links from Episode 6 – Matt Makai on Developer Relations