Blog Culture Developer Relations at GitLab: What we've learned since our start
Published on: March 13, 2024
7 min read

Developer Relations at GitLab: What we've learned since our start

DevRel is key to success for many tech companies. Find out how GitLab's DevRel program has evolved to stay aligned with the industry and our customers.

connections - cover image

Earlier this year, a tweet (are they still called that?) by Kelsey Hightower sparked discussion on social media and internally at GitLab.

Kelsey Hightower tweet

At first, Kelsey's response might seem a bit flippant, but there’s an underlying truth to it: Developer Relations (short: DevRel) – and other business functions – must meet the needs of the business and your customers. However, what your stakeholders and customers need will be different in the future. Therefore, to be successful, you have to iterate to stay aligned with them.

Reflecting back on my five years working in Developer Relations (formerly known as Community Relations) at GitLab, our team has continuously evolved to stay aligned with the needs of our customers, our community, and the business. GitLab CEO and founder Sid Sijbrandij explains how North Star Metrics evolve in his blog post on goal-setting for startups: Artificially constraining your company to one goal creates velocity and creativity. He details the shift from attention to active users to revenue to profit. The evolution of DevRel at GitLab in many ways maps to that same journey.

What is DevRel - image 2

Early DevRel at GitLab

When I joined GitLab in 2018, our team was largely made up of Community Advocates, an Evangelist Program Manager (me), a Code Contributor program manager, and a director. The Community Advocates were tasked with monitoring and engaging with GitLab community members across various online channels but primarily Hacker News and Twitter. Answering questions and creating issues based on comments served to increase awareness and attention for GitLab. In addition, users learned that their questions would be answered and feedback was being heard and, frequently, acted on.

At the same time, the Code Contributor program and Evangelist program were driving growth and interest in GitLab by helping our contributors navigate the contribution process, organizing events and meetups to connect our community, and deepening our relationship with our community champions, also known as GitLab Heroes.

For companies in early stages, this is how DevRel often looks. The key tactics in this phase are:

  • use low-cost tools (blogs and social media) to drive attention
  • capitalize on people’s interest to deepen relationships and create advocates and champions
  • smooth the pathways to contribute or discover content

Tip: Direct engagement with your community through social media and online forums drives awareness, builds trust, and increases the quality and volume of feedback on your product.

Expanding DevRel's reach

Next, we ramped up programs like GitLab for Open Source and GitLab for Education. These programs helped attract to our platform key open source projects and many large academic institutions, both with large numbers of engaged users. More users meant more feedback to help us improve the product and more contributors.

As attention grew and the breadth and depth of our platform increased, we needed to better enable our customers to leverage the capabilities of GitLab’s DevSecOps Platform. This stage roughly maps to the revenue North Star Metric. To drive greater awareness and adoption, the Community Relations team underwent a critical change.

Tip: When looking to grow your active users, engage with partners who can bring their community to your product or platform. This strategy is often overlooked but can be a big boost to awareness and growth, setting you up for success.

Deepening the DevRel bench

As our next move, we formed a team of technical experts, known as Developer Evangelists. This team engaged in more traditional DevRel practices, those that might come to mind when asking yourself “What is DevRel?”. Internally, we referred to this team’s role as the three Cs:

  • Content creation - creating blog posts, technical talks, demos, and other content to enable our customers
  • Community engagement - engaging online and at events with our customers and community
  • Consulting - serving as internal advocates for and experts on the wider GitLab community

Having technical experts who could connect directly with customers and escalate that feedback internally helped improve the feedback loop between users and product teams. This team also deeply understood GitLab users, which improved the company's ability to enable our customers and community through content.

Tip: Early in your company journey, executives, product managers, and engineers play a vital role in engaging with community. As the number of users grows, you’ll need technical experts on your team who can directly engage with users and ensure customer feedback reaches key stakeholders (executives and product owners).

Continuously evolving DevRel at GitLab

Over the past year, the team has evolved again.

  • A new vice president joined our team and has helped us become more strategic and better aligned cross-functionally.

  • A Contributor Success team was established to better engage and align with our customers around contributions to GitLab. Evolving from a one-person function to a full-fledged team of engineers with deep experience in open source (including multiple past contributors to GitLab), this team continuously improves the contribution experience and engages directly with customers who wish to contribute.

  • We updated our team name and many of our team members’ job titles to align with industry standards.

  • And we’ve all ramped up quite a bit on AI, perhaps you’ve heard of GitLab Duo?

As GitLab continues to mature as a public company, the team will continue to evolve. Through these changes, we will stay focused on increasing the efficiency and impact of our efforts for our customers, our product, and our team.

Gaining - and maintaining - executive buy-in

Executive buy-in is essential for DevRel. Look at the companies with the largest, most engaged communities and you will find that those companies also have the most active, engaged, and often highly respected founders and CEOs. This is certainly true with GitLab.

GitLab’s engagement with our community began before we were even a company when Dmitriy Zaporozhets (DZ) started the open source GitLab project with this commit. The engagement continued when Sid launched GitLab on Hacker News.

The importance of community in GitLab’s success cannot be overstated, and while we’ve grown to heights that few companies reach, contributions from our customers and community remain central in our strategy. Because of this, team members, from the highest levels of GitLab and throughout our organization, remain in active communication with our customers via issues and social forums, working hard at all times to help them succeed. Transparency is key here. Documenting our DevRel strategies in the public GitLab handbook enables everyone to contribute.

Tip: Executive support is critical when building a community.

So what is DevRel?

I want to go back to the initial question that sparked this blog: What is DevRel?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Emilio Salvador, vice president of Developer Relations at GitLab, which was recently merged to our handbook page:

"Developer Relations (short: DevRel) operates at the intersection of technology, community, and advocacy, serving as the voice and ears of GitLab in the wider tech world. Their core mission revolves around nurturing and sustaining a vibrant, engaged community of developers, contributors, and users. This involves a multifaceted approach that includes creating educational content, organizing events and workshops, developing programs, and providing platforms for knowledge exchange and collaboration. The team not only focuses on promoting GitLab’s features and capabilities but also actively listens to and incorporates feedback from the community to inform product development and improvements."

That’s what it is today, but if the history of DevRel at GitLab is any indication, I expect that we’ll continue to iterate going forward.

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