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Developer Advocacy: Turning a passion for talking about tech into a career

What exactly is a developer advocate, and how do they connect developers and companies around the world? Why is the area of developer relations set to explode? Can anybody with a passion for tech become a developer advocate? What are the keys to success on a global scale? How does a developer advocate maintain authenticity when balancing the needs of their company and their tech community? What are the hot topics in areas including Java, JavaScript, "tech for good," artificial intelligence, blockchain, the cloud, and open source?

These are just a few of the questions addressed by developer advocate and author Geertjan Wielenga in the book Developer, Advocate! published by Packt Publishing. We are proud to share an excerpt from the opening interview with Scott Davis, web architect and principal engineer with Thoughtworks.

Geertjan Wielenga: To begin with, do you consider yourself to be a tech evangelist or a developer advocate, or something along those lines?

Scott Davis: We could spend our entire conversation simply unpacking the politics behind those two phrases. I prefer "advocacy" over "evangelism" because it implies a more measured, thoughtful, and nuanced discussion. But I can appreciate the passion behind evangelism, and my speaking style has been compared favorably to a "pastor in the pulpit" more than once.

For most of my professional career, as an author, teacher, and speaker at software conferences, I've tried to focus on advocating free and open-source tech. I like lending my voice and passion to projects that may not have large corporations behind them.

Geertjan Wielenga: But wouldn't you say that in the term "evangelism" there is something about enthusiasm that "advocacy" might be missing?

Scott Davis: Since I'm not being paid by a corporation to talk about its products, I definitely have an honest, heartfelt fire in the belly for what I choose to talk about.

The first time I spoke at the Great International Developer Summit in Bangalore, India, one of the attendees went up to the conference organizer after my talk and said, "I don't remember his name, but be sure to invite back the speaker who has hair like a lion!" I love that! Admittedly, I do roar about standards-based development and open-source solutions quite a bit; it's an apt comparison.

On a related note, it's interesting that what works well on stage (having an outsized personality and a booming speaking voice) works less well for pair programming. You don't want someone who is boisterous and loud as a partner; you want the power dynamic to be far more balanced. Ideally, you want to pair up with someone who listens more than they talk.

Geertjan Wielenga: What would you say are the advantages or disadvantages of being a developer advocate working for a company versus working for yourself?

Scott Davis: I ran ThirstyHead—my own software consultancy—for a decade before joining Thoughtworks. What I enjoyed about working for myself was the freedom to talk authentically about the tech that was really exciting to me.

Thankfully, Thoughtworks encourages me to continue talking about what I'm most passionate about. It doesn't exert any editorial control at all over what I say on stage or in my writing.

The upsides to working for a large organization in a product advocacy role are that you get a steady paycheck and deep insider knowledge. You can talk about the cool, new, upcoming features that no one else knows about.

Scott Davis
Scott Davis talking at the Great International Developer Summit

Geertjan Wielenga: What have you been advocating recently? I've seen you talking about conversational user interfaces (UIs) and responsive progressive web apps. How do you choose which tech to advocate?

Scott Davis: The iPhone is now over a decade old. I vividly remember when it came out thinking, "Wow, this is a game-changer: a full-fidelity web browser in my pocket!" That was before the App Store was even a glimmer in Apple's eye.

That was also the timeframe when Google Maps was first released. I was working on a pre-release version of Google Maps for a satellite imaging company, and I could viscerally feel how AJAX-based websites changed the whole user experience for the better. The iPhone and Google Maps forever changed the way we do web development.

I'm feeling that same way right now about conversational UIs. We're hearing devices actually speak to us in realistic voices, not like the primitive chatbots of the past that used robotic speech synthesis like Stephen Hawking or in the movie WarGames. You can actually use your voice to communicate with the device in your hand in a meaningful way. We're seeing this show up on our smartphones, on our watches, and even on our television remote controls.

I used to laboriously tap out Breaking Bad one letter at a time on an onscreen keyboard using the left/right/up/down arrows on the remote. Now I hold up my remote control and say, "Breaking Bad."

I really feel that conversational UIs have got to the place now where the software, hardware, and bandwidth are all there. It's that perfect storm where it's all come together. This idea of talking to computers is really breaking down barriers once again. There's something very natural about walking in and talking to a computer. I'm really fascinated by that.

Where this really shines is when we start talking about accessibility. I walk into the kitchen in the morning and say, "Hey Alexa, play some Bob Marley." It's a novelty for me, but imagine if I had low vision or full blindness. All of a sudden, it's not a novelty—it's my whole user experience.

In both the U.S. and worldwide, the literacy rate is only about 85%. For 15% of the world, a conversational UI is their whole user experience. If you have dyslexia or another cognitive impairment that makes reading hard, conversational UIs can help. If English is your second language, perhaps it's easier to hear it than read it. Heck, if you're driving or have a baby in your arms, a conversational UI can make your life easier.

We're on the cusp of the "next big thing" with conversational UIs, and I'm having a blast exploring all of the possibilities.

To see more of Scott Davis' content see:

Scott’s Keynote “It’s Spelled ‘Accessibility’, not ‘Disability’”:

Podcast interview with Scott “A11Y -- Making Web Accessibility Easier

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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