The DevRel influencer trend

And why DevRel != tech influencer.

Divya Mohan
6 min readJan 28, 2023

A worrying trend in the industry has been on the rise for quite some time — the merger of what used to be developer relations and what we know as social media influencers into one blob, the DevRel influencer.

The Venn diagram of DevRel influencers

Disclaimer: This is not to diss either side or trash people from one side trying to do the other. I’m not against people earning money.

That being said, what I am against is bad actors spreading misinformation and spoiling it not only for the folks who are part of this industry but for those who are new to it.

What is the difference b/w a DevRel and an influencer, though?

If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Developer Relations, here’s what you’d get,

Developer Relations is an umbrella term covering the strategies and tactics for building and nurturing a community of mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and developers (e.g., software developers) as the primary users, and often influencers on purchases, of a product

Coming to what a tech influencer is, let’s first look at what Oxford Dictionary defines an influencer as.

/ˈɪnfluənsər/ ​a person or thing that influences somebody/something, especially a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by recommending it on social media.

Extrapolating that definition to tech, a tech influencer is someone who would be able to influence potential buyers of a product/service by recommending it on social media.

However, if you look at those two definitions, there’s a single word, community, and that makes all the difference!

If I were to simplify what, I think, is the actual difference between a tech influencer and a DevRel,

the main difference between a DevRel & a tech influencer can be visualized as the difference between the traffic at an intersection and on a one-way street.

Very much akin to a one-way street, a tech influencer’s responsibility is to convey a message to the intended audience in the form of social media posts (tweets, chirps… you get the drift) or content creation like videos and blogs. Feedback is neither solicited nor expected in this case and purchases driven via engagement are the only end goal.

Photo by Vita Marija Murenaite on Unsplash

In the case of a person who works in Developer Relations, the audience is not expected to be a passive consumer but instead actively provide feedback. This is where building a community factors in instead of an audience because engagement is not the only end goal. It is one of them.

As much as the person working in Developer Relations needs to think about the revenue side of it (because that’s what pays the bills, let’s be honest), there’s a mutual responsibility of ensuring there is benefit for the community members. Additionally, the community i.e. the developers aren’t the only stakeholders they work with. Developer Relations has to often work alongside other organizational departments, including but not limited to, engineering, product, marketing, education, presales, customer success, etc.

Credit: Image by macrovector on Freepik

However, since it is an umbrella term that can include a lot of things and collaborating with a lot of departments, most folks outside of it see it as a fancy name for technical marketing, and some even believe that DevRel folks are just glorified salespeople.

Fun fact: I know this to be true because I was one of these people, five years back.

People who work in Developer Relations don’t fare much better in terms of where they stand in an organizational context because that’s how large the umbrella is.

What’s the big deal if they’re different?

Ambiguity always causes problems and nobody explains it better than Emily Freeman, Head of Community at AWS, does in this tweet.

Although this was said for advocacy, it holds equally true for Developer Relations of which it is a subset. Not only does ambiguity offer the term up for individual interpretation, but cut to today, when it is not uncommon to see folks within tech position themselves as influencers under the guise of being advocates for a particular technology, framework, or tool.

Why is this influencer trend worrisome?

As a result of this positioning, what should have been a subset i.e., social media management and content creation, ends up becoming the encompassing set and the Venn diagram above kinda starts looking like this.

With this increasingly popular trend, you need to be a social media influencer and have a considerable following on your personal social media account before you become a “DevRel”.

The primary focus areas for these “DevRels” are cranking up the follower counts for the social media accounts of the organizations that they collaborate with.

Case in point being, this tweet below by Anaïs Urlichs, Developer Advocate at AquaSec

In a subsequent tweet from this thread, she mentions folks being able to quote a whopping USD 70K for a sponsored video, depending on their subscriber counts on social media and other platforms.

Now don’t get me wrong, a sizeable social media following on your personal accounts is nice-to-have when you are working in Developer Relations in this day and age. But is it an absolute necessity? I think not.

Not only do requirements like these pave the way for some very intense gatekeeping but they’re also extremely delimiting when somebody is trying to start out and doesn’t have the “influence” expected of them on social media. Instead of nurturing communities, the focus is on building an audience via clickbait and engagement-driven content. Some even go the whole mile by disguising their content as awareness and educational material without explicitly stating their affiliation while putting out said content, furthering the rot.

Eventually, what could have been a positive learning journey in fostering relations for the individual and the company they work for, in general, ends up being driven by the wrong metrics.

Quoting Einstein,

… if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that it is stupid. But the trend is definitely an ineffective strategy that will reap benefits for neither the company nor the individual in the long run. How do we measure DevRel then? Should folks working in DevRel never put up sponsored content outside of their employment and/or be affiliated otherwise?

What do we do about this?

Mary Thengvall and swyx have written some fantastic content about measuring DevRel. Both advocate for custom metrics specific to DevRel. Mary, as a matter of fact, christens it in her blog as DevRel Qualified Leads while swyx advises narrowing down your metrics based on the type of Developer Relations program you are working with.

While that is sound advice, the first step, IMO, is to advocate for standardization around the role so that we are able to set reasonable expectations. The lack of standardization is what makes it easier for bad actors and grifters to creep in to any ecosystem and cause harm.

For the second question, the answer is it depends. In the event, anybody chooses to go down that route, however, there needs to be an explicit disclaimer stating the sponsorship. Otherwise, the content is just another marketing pitch and as swyx says in his blog,

If you are in “devrel” but you walk like marketing, talk like marketing, and are measured like marketing, you are in marketing. In fact, you are very expensive affiliate marketing.

As always, I’m curious to hear what you think. Leave a comment below or let’s continue the conversation on Twitter, Mastodon, or LinkedIn.



Divya Mohan

Technical Evangelism @ Rancher by SUSE • SIG Docs co-chair @ Kubernetes