The Power of Empathy in Developer Relations

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a developer advocate is assuming that every user is just like you. Your knowledge is important in the developer advocate role, but it’s crucial to understand the perspectives and needs of your community to effectively serve them.

Empathy is the most essential skill for developer advocates.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This means being able to put yourself in the shoes of the developers you’re serving, even if you’re very different people.

A developer who can empathize with their audience can be a great teacher and advocate because they can understand what developers need and how to best serve them.

Empathy is contextual. You might empathize with people who look like you, live in the same country, or have a similar background or skill level. But when you don’t have much in common, empathy is usually lower.

Why empathy matters

How will having high empathy for your developers help in developer relations?

Improve relationships

You’ll build strong, trusting relationships with the devs you’re serving. The community will know you won’t judge or look down on them. They’ll feel heard. They’ll open up and share their struggles with you. They’ll give you honest feedback on what to improve. You’ll be able to ask your audience what they want to learn and build, fueling your content creation.

Improve your teaching

The best teachers aren’t the ones who know the most. The best teachers understand where you’ll struggle, how that feels, and how to move you past it. They explain in a way you understand and meet you where you are. All of that requires empathy.

When educating your community, it’s important to understand:

  • What your devs know
  • What their goals are
  • What they have to learn to reach those goals

This allows you to create the right content for their needs.

Deal with frustrations

It’s inevitable that your company or product won’t be able to please everyone. Decisions will be made that disappoint or frustrate some portion of your user base. You’ll probably be the first one to hear about it, too.

You could write them off as grumpy or ungrateful developers, but who does that benefit? Rather than being dismissive, you can empathize and understand where they’re coming from.

Could your communications have been clearer? Were the wrong expectations set? Is there anything you can do to alleviate their frustrations?

If you’re tapped into your community, you’ll predict the frustrations ahead of time. That allows you to create tools, content, or communications to help.

The pitfalls of low empathy

It’s clear that high empathy helps, but how does low empathy hinder our efforts?

Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and someone asks, “hey, can you tell me how to get to the library?” You respond, “Sure! Go downtown to the place with the delicious sandwiches. Park in the back, and you’ll see the library.”

You’re assuming they know where downtown is, know the local restaurants well, enjoy the same sandwiches you do, drive a car, and know what the library looks like. You’re assuming they’re exactly like you.

Instead, you could ask some questions first. How well do you know the area? Do you know Joe’s Sandwich Shop? How are you traveling (public transit, walking, biking, driving)? Do you know what the library looks like?

If you have low empathy for your developers, you’ll make poor assumptions and won’t serve them well.

How to increase your empathy

I have some good news: you’re not born with a fixed amount of empathy. Like just about everything, you can improve with practice.

Be curious about others

Many people only see the output of DevRel. Giving talks and demos, writing blog posts, creating videos. But listening and asking questions are what really make the difference.

Spend time with your community members and ask them questions about their lives and experiences. Don’t just ask the marketing questions like “How did you find us,” or “what would make you upgrade to a platinum plan?” Find out what they’re working on. What they enjoy. What they’re struggling with.

Get outside your echo chamber and follow a diverse group of people on social media. Don’t just follow the typical top experts. Follow beginners. Follow people from different cultures. Follow people in adjacent fields like design.

Expand your inputs and you’ll improve your output.

Step out of your comfort zone

Learning new things can be an uncomfortable and humbling experience. While you can’t exactly relearn your tool or product, you can still feel what all learners feel.

Try picking up a new skill or hobby. Something where you’ll struggle, ask for help, and eventually succeed. Learn a new language like Rust, try 3D modeling in Blender, or take a dance class.

Humility can be a great path to empathy.

Read more

Expand the developer content you consume to include content from beginners.

Your intention will be different when you read these articles or watch these videos. You’re not reading for novelty or information but for empathy. What are they writing about? What do they find interesting? What do they want to share with others?

Browse places like Reddit and Stack Overflow. What are people struggling with? What are they interested in? How are they phrasing their questions?

Check your biases

We all have biases. You might tend to treat people of different races, genders, nationalities, abilities, or ages differently.

You can take tests, like this one from Harvard, to identify your own implicit biases. Identifying and acknowledging your biases is the first step to counteracting them. It’s difficult to genuinely empathize with people you’re biased against.

Wrap Up

Here is a great article on becoming more empathetic. I pulled some ideas from there and related it to developer advocacy, but you should read the whole article.

It’s possible to have too much empathy, where you experience someone else’s negative feelings or trauma. If you find yourself experiencing the same stress or frustrations as the people you’re serving, this article has some advice.