What is a DevOps Advocate?

What is an Advocate and what is it in context of Developer Relations (DevRel)? After more than twenty years, I have returned to the realm of DevRel: so what has changed and what has remained the same?

My new role started August, 2019: to help accelerate the adoption of DevOps outcomes with Nutanix. Fortunately, this is easier now than the beginning of my twenty+ year career journey, so I’d like to explain where I came from, what my role entails, and how I help the community.

1997: Technology Evangelist, Industry and Developer Relations, Netscape Marketing

My third job out of college was a pay cut and a one-way ticket of 4000 kilometers or 2500 miles from my home, but in 1996, I became one of Netscape’s webmasters. I worked with engineering, product management, and the entire marketing department to improve www.netscape.com: the world’s highest visited web site (over 100M hits/day at that time). My Father was slightly unhappy with my decision, but my Mother was excited for me. The move started my career in Silicon Valley, understanding start-ups and stock options, and the discovery of my wife to be!

As one of the webmasters of Netscape, the company that led the charge onto the world wide web via browsers and a suite of server products, I had a pioneering role working on the world’s highest traffic web site. The web was fairly new and I was given title of Content Engineer reporting to Creative Director Hugh Duberly, because the Netscape website was part of Electronic Marketing and it was considered primarily a publishing platform for marketing programs. I had two peer engineers, Jonathan Feinstein and Alan Spar, both had preceded me. I was always envious of Jonathan’s SGI Indy workstation! Netscape’s web site was in maintained as software under revision control with CVS: Concurrent Versions System, we requested Server Engineering “push” the web site at the end of every work day (by passing around red boxing gloves to represent who had the final authority to coordinate the end of day publishing work), which was rsync to the web server farm over a hacked in SSH transport, which was later adopted by the rsync project. At Netscape, you could log-in to any workstation, because /home was a NFS mount and so were our CVS repositories.

Despite being content focused on HTML (because the DOM: Document Object Model and CSS: Cascading Style Sheets did not exist yet), my peers pushed the boundaries of the web with JavaScript whenever possible to make normally static web pages become interactive. Back then, viewing the source of a web page was the easiest manner to learn the tricks of the web because the front-end focus of web client development was fueled by intense Netscape, Microsoft, and Opera competition to innovate on the web experience. There was such intense interest in the web, when people asked me how hard it was to get started, I would often reply, “a webmaster is someone who is only six months ahead of you.” I wanted to let people know it was easy to start and that learning would never end, these were values that innately resonated from my upbringing and education, and they were critical elements for my next role at Netscape.

Server-side web scale work was even more of an infant and CGI was the first tool many learned, something I’d self-taught and combined with PERL 4.0.36 at my first post-graduate job. I wrote the Plug-in Finder (a PERL CGI) and worked with Server Engineering to insure it would perform under load while working with marketing to make a web application database to manage plug-in providers.

My colleagues created the Web advertising industry and defined the first banner ad dimensions, I did the production behind our advertising and search programs, created tools to help speed my work and prevent errors, and the results generated multiple millions of dollars in revenue. Netscape decided not to productize or compete in the advertising or search server space back then, there were more pressing needs to nurture the engineering of the open web.

Because I worked closely with the Server Engineering team for publishing and programming, they entrusted me with root on a few of Netscape’s production servers, and that cemented my full-stack developer and operations career on the world’s biggest web site. These were amazing days, nearly every hardware Unix vendor would bring their kit to have 1% canary or less of the web site traffic directed to them to help benchmark improvements. I know SGI experimented and tuned the IRIX TCP/IP stack in this manner. I recall seeing some of the first F5 “BigIP” boxes show up in this real world lab for the advancement of the Internet industry.

In 1997, I was recruited by Tim Hickman, Netscape’s first Technology Evangelist. The team needed help covering JavaScript, expanding tutorials and sample code for all of the new features that came out with every major release of Navigator. Because of my plug-in finder experience, I covered browser plug-in update mechanism, but I also proudly covered our search and mail server APIs, and LDAP! This Internet based world of engineering with RFC standards published without license competed with and disrupted the dominant and mature, but entirely proprietary client-server networks (such as Novell IPX and Banyan Vines), file systems (XFS was not yet contributed to the Linux kernel), protocols (RDP has never been open sourced), and programming frameworks (such as Java and Active-X): nearly which were tied to a single vendor and/or operating system, who controlled the entire ecosystem. Netscape had evangelists for Java (Steve), VRML (Rob/garlic), CORBA/IIOP (David Huntley), Security (Alec), JavaScript (Eric Krock), and more.

Technology Evangelism had been popularized by Guy Kawasaki at Apple to attract developers to write application on the Apple Macintosh OS platform, thereby driving consumer purchases of Macs. The early model was very much a one-to-many role, broadcast oriented, “shout from the rooftops and call the flock” or “Pied-Piper lead the way for others to follow in your footsteps,” all akin to tele-evanglism over mass-media of TV and radio, but for platform developers. We were lucky to have Guy speak to Developer Relations off-site once. While the open-source movement had begun with the advent of computing, proprietary innovation regularly pushed past it, creating IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Oracle, and many others. The Internet brought a renewed focus on standards and software licensing, where JavaScript and Java could eventually become an open standard and Linux could rise to disrupt the entire operating system vendor landscape.

Given the Internet way of public, published, open RFC standards, even if they were immature in the market when compared to their proprietary competition, Netscape’s adoption of Technology Evangelism necessarily made it a two-way street. While Engineering and Product Management would create new features and APIs, technical writers in the engineering documentation or technical publishing teams were not enough to attract developer attention, even when their work was public. Going to developers, showing them the benefits of adoption, arguing for better ways to work, and demonstrating the reality of this work took a unique set of skills, including public speaking.

It was just as important to bring external feedback from the field of customers, partners, and developers to Engineering and Product Management for what didn’t work well enough in the real world and what developers needed next, all the time discovering new use cases of the Internet. I learned to stop saying “You can’t do that” and learned to say “You can’t do that… yet!” I brought global feedback directly into Netscape because I sat in on weekly engineering status meetings for a number of product teams. As an adjunct and sometimes honorary member, I would help write release notes, try early release candidates, and review technical documentation to offload engineering work. The marketing work was creating technical notes, tutorials, and demos, going to conferences and speaking to present these materials, writing articles and books in publications, and so on.

The world hunger to understand the Internet way, combined with Netscape’s engineering and product leadership, and global feedback from the field made a new, tight loop of innovation on the web the world had never seen. It created a new digital sector of the economy and it has had an everlasting impact on traditional business, a digital transformation that continues today.

I was part of the Netscape layoffs in 1998 of over 10% of the workforce, an early casualty of the “Browser Wars,” which later resulted in a Microsoft settlement for anti-monopoly practices in 2004 with the United States Department of Justice and twenty states. However, the work achieved by Netscape and its partner ecosystem could not be undone, much of the Netscape’s value in establishing the open web continues at Mozilla. Microsoft’s proprietary hold on business continues to erode and today it has begun to power open technologies to remain relevant in operating systems, tools, and clouds.

The Continued Rise of the Developer

Looking back on when my first DevRel career ended at Netscape in 1998, I had gained a unique Silicon Valley viewpoint of how commercial Internet software development could be performed at scale. Since that time, a few key landmarks are evidence of growing mass awareness of my experience spreading across the world over time…

2000: Developers, Developers, Developers!

Recall Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s fanatical call for them to join the Windows platform: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSJS6mgqV64 at the Windows Developer Conference in 2000. The CEO was working for DevRel on that day and following in the footsteps of Apple evangelism. The developer experience has been a continued strength of Microsoft to this day as it continues to defend and expand its platforms.

2009: The Birth of Agile Infrastructure, DevOps, and Nutanix

A year which I shall document further shortly, I owe you some more insight!

With the creation of the term DevOps from the groundswell creation of the Agile SysAdmin Google Group, Patrick Dubois founded a community and a movement that sought to break down the traditional silos between application developers and infrastructure operators to deliver their work to customers.

This same year Nutanix was founded, pioneering the term Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI), which disrupts the entire infrastructure industry by combining the storage, virtualization, and network silos into a software defined cluster, delivering an Enterprise Cloud experience for Agile Infrastructure and SysAdmins.

These two separate events occurred in the same year, but their coincidence are related manifestations of the next landmark.

2011: Why Software is Eating the World

At Netscape, our co-founder Marc Andreessen was certainly part of my reporting chain. I’m sad to say I never had a direct interaction with him, I had to respect his choice for when to engage. Nevertheless, in 2011, he wrote a pivotal observation and coined a beautiful phrase which I would summarize as the digital business transformation of physical to virtual via software. https://a16z.com/2011/08/20/why-software-is-eating-the-world/

This was part of Marc’s experience in creating Loudcloud/Opsware, an early Software as a Service (SaaS) and Managed Service Cloud Provider. This was a forerunner for the cloud mindset we have in 2019.

2013: The New Kingmakers

Another realization of how software developers power disruption in the economy and in business organizations was coined: https://thenewkingmakers.com/ What started as a blog entry progressed into a rallying cry for a shift in power of the gross domestic product of every country in the world. Every company now wanted to command a digital presence on the web, but they first needed developers to implement, innovate, and compete in the digital market before shifting to attract, promote, and grow customers to engage with their platform. This trend has accelerated and Nutanix represents exactly the disruption software has had on the hardware industry.

“The most successful companies today are those that understand the strategic role that developers will play in their success or failure. Not just successful technology companies – virtually every company today needs a developer strategy. There’s a reason that ESPN and Sears have rolled out API programs, that companies are being bought not for their products but their people. The reason is that developers are the most valuable resource in business.”

2019: Everyone is a Developer

My colleague Jared Rypka-Hauer and I presented at .NEXT Europe 2019 in Copenhagen a well received talk to a packed room on how to “Accelerate Your DevOps Journey.” To underscore how everyone needs development skills today, slide #14 outlined the parallel progression and goals for Developers & Testers, DevOps, and Operator teams in each of their domains:

  • Operations teams in IT are trying to make infrastructure invisible with cloud experiences through automation to get to continuous operations.
  • DevOps teams spanning Development and Operations domains continue to automate and reduce the friction in delivering business to converge the domains.
  • The Developers and Testers themselves are working to reduce the amount of operations needed for their work through increasing automation tooling and methods.

There is no lack of work to pursue the state of the art in business today, nor is there any question what the direction for any team should be!

A Critique of Technology Evangelism

Much of technology evangelism’s early broadcast model does not scale to cover the world over the long-term because it is limited to the quantify and quality of talent in Developer Relations teams; they must exploit media to reach their audience of platform developers. If your value is limited to how many flight air miles you cover to reach developers anywhere in the world, then the further you go, the more time you have wasted in transit. The employees of a platform vendor are a necessarily a unique, constrained resource and hard to find or replace; they are pets and the limitations to scale are apparent.

Worse, when viewed in an outbound only manner, there is a definite direction to power and communication. Because the term “evangelism” carries historical and religious connections, they can be conflated with technology evangelism. Since the goal of DevRel is promote adoption and reduce barriers, the use of the term has been examined and deprecated for Advocacy, which implies the cultivating value of a diverse audience.

Given a platform of any value, developers will try amplify their mastery and use of the platform. When developers feel they cannot progress or are not listened to, they will spend their effort elsewhere in the attention economy. With the rise of the early Internet, there were listservs, Usenet newsgroups, IRC, and FTP for email distribution lists, forums, chat, and file transfer, respectively. The web has greatly consolidated these facilities into modern, typically advertising sponsored but free to consume counterparts, with superior navigation and search for a much larger global audience. The expectations for developer support grow and no matter the excellence provided by a vendor, communities evolve outside of their control on the web under Github, Gitter, Slack, Meetup, Youtube, Reddit, Quorra, Discord, Twitch, and StackOverflow and many other mechanisms every day.

These developer communities can achieve a positive impact, grow to a global reach, and support many of their own needs. At this point, word of mouth, community support, personally published tutorials and blogs, chat rooms, and other help can be even more powerful, immediate, numerous, and localized than any vendor’s resource. So a partnership formed on the basis of combined vendor and community advocacy really represents a hybrid, mature model of positive, reinforcing growth pattern for platform and career success.

At Netscape, much of this happened or started while I was there, but never at the scale and velocity seen in 2019. The democratization of power also has downsides, since individuals with negative outlooks or agendas, can amplify and weaponize interactions to harm any community. We have witnessed this on a global scale with social media manipulation by foreign and domestic political state powers and groups.

2019: Principal DevOps Advocate, DevOps Marketing, Nutanix

At Nutanix, one year after incorporating DevRel inside Marketing with two people, Luke Kilpatrick justified a Developer Content Architect, a researcher, and an Advocate (me!). With senior management’s leadership, the team was refocused onto DevOps Marketing. The Partner Alliance team supports independent software vendors and partners directly, Nutanix Customer Support offers superior service for all, and the community forums address most of the remainder when there isn’t a Reddit or StackOverflow question on the web. The DevOps Marketing team will continue its DevRel responsibilities and promote the Nutanix platform APIs for developers, but the focus has become building a bridge between Operators and Developers, perhaps the simplest definition of DevOps. IT and Operators represent the majority of Nutanix customers and there is a huge need for industry practitioners to evolve in cloud era. Nutanix already makes computing invisible anywhere for hybrid clouds, but DevOps outcomes naturally fit on and are accelerated by Nutanix. My goal is to help people get started, grow their capabilities, and lead their organization to new levels of success: a perfect definition of DevOps advocacy.

Three years ago, my experience led to the creation of the first Nutanix Solutions Automation Architect working, defending, and improving our platform use cases with some of the largest enterprises and institutions. It was the culmination of my career of over twenty years in Internet, web-scale engineering and operations management. I am probably the only Silicon Valley software engineering manager employed in the history of Nutanix Sales.

The return to DevRel and next step of my career arc has begun: now I am a Principal of the company, a DevOps champion, and an Advocate for all. I couldn’t be more excited, because I am back to the future!

Future Developer Summit 2019

I just returned this week from https://www.futuredeveloper.io/, where I met many DevRel leaders across the industry! Some interesting learnings were around various approaches to DevRel persons and programs, addressing “diversity debt,” and InnerSource Patterns, which seems to be open source principles adopted in corporate settings, not unlike Netscape, Mozilla, Linux, and Kubernetes.

Many of the authors and editors of the Developer Marketing and Relations: the Essential Guide book were in attendance. We already have an idea to submit a chapter on DevOps personas for the next edition!



An excerpt of this blog was published on NUTANIX.DEV, some edits, and an expansion were back ported, above.

Further updates forthcoming!

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