Developer Evangelists and Burnout
When I first saw the listing for the Twilio developer evangelist job, I said, “That looks like a job I would enjoy. Unfortunately, I also enjoy being married and I don’t think I can do both at the same time.”
The first developer evangelist I met didn’t work for Twilio, but he traveled so much that he didn’t even keep an apartment in the city he considered home. Several of the evangelists I’ve met at events over the last year carry elite status on multiple airlines. I even heard a story once about an evangelist who went off the grid for his honeymoon and came home to a voicemail from an airline representative who noticed that he hadn’t been on one of their planes in a while and wanted to make sure that he was okay.
The industry standard seems to be that a developer evangelist flies over 100,000 miles a year and quits after 18 months. This strikes me as odd for a couple reasons.
First, it’s really, really hard to find developer evangelists. I mean, it’s hard enough to hire a developer, let alone one who:
- enjoys public speaking
- can write well
- has the patience to teach
- can work more or less independently
- has at least some appetite for travel
- enjoys hanging out at conferences and meetups
Second, it took me at least six months, probably more, before I felt like I knew what I was doing in this role. Assuming they’re not burned out, a developer evangelist is going to be much more effective in their second year than their first: they’re going to give better talks, they’re going to pick better events, they’re going to build stronger relationships.
So when you find an evangelist, it seems bizarrely shortsighted to treat them like a racehorse to be ridden hard and then put out to pasture when they’re no longer capable of doing the job.
Fortunately, before I blew off the Twilio opportunity I had a phone call Kevin Whinnery who told me that over half the evangelists on our team have a family, and that that’s made possible because Twilio does evangelism differently. As I head into 2015, I’m pleasantly surprised to be more energized going into my second year as a developer evangelist than I was at the start of my first. Looking back, I see three factors that have kept burnout at bay.
This job is about serving the developer community, but it’s hard to serve a community you don’t know, and you don’t learn a community by parachuting in for a conference and then not coming back til next year. We’d rather develop real relationships with fewer developers than spread our social capital thin across the country. I’ll turn down a lot of great events this year because, given the option between a mid-sized event in Chicago and a large event elsewhere, I’ll choose Chicago.
Not to mention, travel is expensive. There is the day lost in transit. There is the money lost on airfare and a hotel. And there is the emotional and mental cost of being away from home – a cost extracted not just from us, but from our families as well. Before we get on a plane we have to ask ourselves, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
According to United, I only flew 25,000 miles for work last year. That’s probably less than other members on my team due to a number of national events that are worth the squeeze that happened to take place in Chicago because it’s a) centrally located and b) an amazing city that everyone should visit. But overall, Twilio evangelists carry a lower frequent flier balance than the industry average, and I think we are more effective because of it.
“Hustling season,” the time of year ripe with conferences and hackathons, happens in the spring and fall. The work during that time is some of the most fun and gratifying work I’ve ever done. I love helping students build awesome projects (and I learn so much from them in the process). I love speaking at conferences and all the conversations that happen after I get off stage.
But no matter how much I enjoy the work, being away from Rachel and my daughter is still hard. Even when the stars align such that I’m working a conference but still able to sleep on my own pillow, it’s not uncommon to be out the door before Rachel’s out of bed and not get home until she’s back in it.
What makes hustling season bearable, aside from enjoying the work, is the same thing that gets us through our brutal Chicago winters: it’s just a season.
Though I spent a lot of time traveling from March to May, I didn’t get on a plane for work in June or July. When I’m riding the Blue Line to O’Hare for the third time in as many weeks, or when I’m getting back to my hotel at 1:00 a.m. and setting an alarm for 7:00 a.m., I know that there is a finish line, and that on the other side of the line, there is rest. That’s a huge difference between my job and, say, working a 100% travel job at Deloitte: a light at the end of the tunnel.
The seasonality also keeps it interesting. I’ll run around non-stop for awhile, then I’m back at my desk at 1871 writing code and blog posts, and generally making it home in time for dinner. After a few weeks of reliving my desk job days, I tend to get stir crazy, but then I’m off to New York or San Francisco for a change scenery. As someone with ADHD and an extreme aversion to boredom, a non-trivial but not-always amount of travel is probably more likely to keep me in this job than to push me out of it.
I have almost complete control over my schedule. For the most part, I decide what events I go to. For the most part, I can decline if it gets to be too much.
Twilio also offers unlimited PTO. I know there’s been a bunch of discussion online about that topic lately and that the general consensus seems to be “great in theory, but people feel guilty asking for time off so they take less of it.”
While I can’t personally speak as to what it’s like in other departments, Twilio evangelists are actively encouraged to take lots of time time off. More importantly, our team’s leadership leads by example on this score. When I asked Rob Spectre, our Director of Developer Evangelism, about unlimited PTO in my interview, he said, “I take about six weeks – three in the winter and another three throughout the rest of the year.”
And when Rob takes time off, he takes time off. Here he is coming back from winter break this year:
Waded neck deep in my inbox all day. Just now got to December 18.412:11 AM - Jan 6, 2015Twitter Ads info and privacySee Rob Spectre's other Tweets
Last year, I took a week-long vacation in April, two weeks in July, and three weeks paternity leave in November. When I came back online, things were pretty quiet because every other member of the team took the last 2-3 weeks of December off to recover from a long hustling season.
All that vacation is in addition to the random days off here and there. This job requires weird hours. Meetups are typically at night, hackathons are over the weekend, conferences often require travel on Sunday. Trying to do all that in addition to keeping a “typical” 9-5 schedule would be kind of absurd.
I was told early on, “If you need to take a day off to recuperate, just take it. You don’t need to get permission from anyone.” Having battled with bipolar, I have a pretty good idea of my mental and emotional limits and I’m fairly unapologetic about giving my brain and body a rest. If I don’t, I’m not going to be much use to anyone.
Since community events happen when developers are not at their desks, evangelists tend to have a lot of flexibility during normal business hours. When I was training for my my first marathon, I routinely did my long runs on Monday mornings and didn’t get to the office until noon. When we were shopping for a used car, we were able to drive out to dealerships during off-peak hours. When Rachel was pregnant, I only missed one of her prenatal appointments.
That’s what’s craziest to me. I almost didn’t apply for this job because I thought I wouldn’t be able to spend enough time with my wife. Yet in any normal desk job, I wouldn’t have been able to sit with her in the doctor’s office on all those Thursday afternoons. Most other companies in America, I would have had to choose between either going on vacation with her in the beginning of the year or staying home with her and Emma at the end of it.
I can’t say that I’ll never get burned out on this job or look to do something else. Maybe as Emma grows older I’ll decide that 30-40% travel is too much. Maybe as Twilio grows larger I’ll decide that I’m better suited for a smaller company. Maybe after a few years of learning the inner workings of a world-class startup, I’ll decide to start my own thing.
But at this point in my life and for the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine a better gig. And though I wouldn’t have thought it before I met Twilio, I now believe that “developer evangelist” can be more than a short stint where you go hard, get burned out, and move on. I believe it can be a career.
If you’d like to learn more about “what does a developer evangelist do?” you may want to read these posts from other guys on the crew:
- Carter Rabasa’s Balancing Hustling and Family
- Matt Makai’s Typical day as a Developer Evangelist
- Ricky Robinett’s Should I become a developer evangelist?
- Kevin Whinnery’s Thoughts on Developer Evangelism
And if you’re a developer with a passion for teaching and serving the community and you think that evangelism might be a good fit for you, I’d love to chat about joining our team (especially if you live in California). Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.