Microsoft hands developer advocates keys to the kingdom

Microsoft views developers as key to not only maintaining its customer base, but expanding it through interaction with open source communities.

SEATTLE -- Myriad discussions and a slew of articles examine Microsoft's changed focus to be more open, but much less is known about the well-supported internal team that would just as soon recommend developers build apps on Linux.

Microsoft was founded and established itself on its relationship with developers and recognizes the importance of that base. So, when it wants to reach out to its developer community, the software, systems and services giant calls on its developer advocates. This group's sole role is to agitate for developers of all backgrounds that the company wants to attract or maintain.

As Microsoft has consumed, supported and contributed more to open source projects, it has amassed a group of developer advocates to target these communities, said Chad Fowler, general manager of developer advocacy at Microsoft, at the Build 2019 conference here last week.

Chad Fowler, GM of developer advocacy, MicrosoftChad Fowler

Through its advocacy, Microsoft reaches out to not only startups that want to launch on Azure, but also to enterprises trying to modernize and transform their systems. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's decision to make Microsoft more open spurred an increased focus to reach out to not only .NET developers, but all developers, and bolster the company's developer advocacy corps, Fowler said.

Microsoft has always had an internal developer experience group. But, in the past couple of years, the company has shifted its tone to support developers versus evangelism. That has made a world of difference to developers, said Ted Neward, an independent software consultant at Neward & Associates in Redmond, Wash., and former director of developer relations at work management software provider Smartsheet.

Part of that is due to the efforts and attitude of Nadella and Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of Microsoft's cloud and enterprise group, he said. It's also because the company has shifted emphasis away from Windows and onto Azure.

"They don't care what you write code in, so long as you run it on Azure," Neward said.

Pitch techniques, not products

Developer advocacy can mean many things: influencing product design to be more developer-friendly, steering company strategy away from developer-hostile behaviors, or just gathering and elevating developer feedback within an organization, said Stephen O'Grady, co-founder and analyst at RedMonk, a market research firm and consultancy in Portland, Maine. At the most basic level, it's simply to provide a voice on behalf of developers inside an organization that wants to provide products or services relevant to them, he said.

Microsoft's developer advocates help to shape product direction and represent customers' voices from all the disparate communities that they meet in person at events or online, Fowler said. The group's mission is not to sell developers on Microsoft's products, but to show them tools and techniques that can help them be more productive and take their feedback back to Microsoft product teams.

"That's why you see the term advocacy, rather than evangelism. We're not trying to sell you; it's a two-way relationship," Fowler said.

Julien Dubois, a Paris-based Java and Spring expert who was recently hired as an Azure development advocate, said he would not be shy to recommend that a developer write apps on Linux over Windows as a 20-plus-year user of the OS. For a Java or JavaScript developer, both OSes are about as good, he said.

"My favorite environment would be Linux, except for the hardware support," Dubois said. "As long as you don't have any specific needs, I would just recommend [using] whatever people feel more comfortable with."

Microsoft has a strong Azure offering for Java and Spring developers, but most people in those communities are not aware of it, at least in Europe, he said. His primary goal is to connect those developers with Microsoft's product team in a bidirectional communication.

"I want to show developers what Azure can bring them, but also give user feedback and needs to our internal teams," Dubois said.

Developer advocates: Assemble

Microsoft's aggressive pursuit of top-notch developer advocates has caught the industry's attention. "Everybody in the Go community

Developers are often a hard-bitten, cynical lot inured to marketing pitches and sales slogans ... [They] want to know that the person across the table from them 'gets' them, because so few outside of development really do.
Ted NewardIndependent software consultant, Neward & Associates

knows Ashley McNamara on my team, and everybody in the DevOps world knows Donovan Brown," Fowler said. They even go by high-profile nicknames, such as "The Azure Avengers" and "The League of Extraordinary Cloud DevOps Advocates."

"They are still working on processes, structures, incentives and collaboration models with the rest of the organization and so on, but the talent they have in place is an embarrassment of riches," said James Governor, co-founder and analyst at RedMonk.

Still, Microsoft is hardly alone with its emphasis on developer outreach. Large vendors such as IBM, AWS, Google and Salesforce view their relationship with their developer base as paramount to secure their overall customer base. For instance, Jeff Barr at AWS and Kelsey Hightower of Google are widely known developer advocates.

Geographically, Silicon Valley and the New York City metro area -- where AWS has one of several AWS Lofts -- tend to be well-represented with developer advocacy, said Larry Carvalho, an analyst at IDC. Outside of these areas, Microsoft traditionally has a good developer presence.

"AWS is increasing its presence in local meetups, and Google is planning for more developer advocacy, but IBM has always been behind," he said. "Salesforce automates developer advocacy through their Trailhead offerings."

Developer advocates must walk the walk

Developer advocates also must balance their time not just with advocacy, but also "walk the walk" to write code and build projects so they can empathize properly with customers.

"Developers are often a hard-bitten, cynical lot inured to marketing pitches and sales slogans and all the hyperbole that goes along with this world," Neward said. "Developers want to know that the person across the table from them 'gets' them, because so few outside of development really do."

Microsoft's advocacy effort also includes "ops advocates," Fowler said. Although, as more organizations adopt DevOps, the lines -- and friction -- between developers and operators fades as developers assume more responsibility for their apps. That means developer advocates increasingly must agitate on behalf of ops, as well as developers, O'Grady said.

Agitation is in Fowler's blood, particularly to support open source efforts, he said. He came to Microsoft in 2015 as part of its acquisition of Wunderlist, where he was CTO. A self-taught programmer, Fowler quickly developed a keen eye to spot standout software development and developers, he said.

"We have a good perspective on what makes developers tick," he said.

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