Marketing to Developers: Core Values and Tactical Tips from GitLab’s Former CMO

May 19, 2021

The idea of building things out of words, numbers, and equations has always fascinated Ashley Smith. Though her early education didn’t include programming, she dabbled in HTML as a kid and wound up graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering. After college, Ashley joined Twilio and played a key role in helping the company reach, engage, and convert its developer audience.

She followed her time at Twilio with several similarly pivotal marketing roles at other companies serving developers: Director of Marketing at Parse, Product Marketing Manager (for Parse) at Facebook, Head of Developer Marketing for Google Maps at Google, CMO at GitLab, VP of Marketing at GitHub, Venture Partner at OpenView, and board member at Buildkite. She’s currently an investor, board member, and advisor.

Ashley’s direct engineering experience and years spent working with and marketing to developers has made her a specialist in the unique challenges of successfully plugging into and communicating with this customer community. She’s an expert on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to building successful relationships with developer audiences, software marketing teams, and technical CEOs.

Core values: Getting it right with developers

“Most engineers are really smart. They realize when someone’s trying to trick them,” Ashley said. “Some people think of traditional marketing like a form of tricking people into doing something. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s definitely the perception.” To create an authentic and sustainable connection with developers, Ashley makes sure her marketing efforts avoid any trickery by adhering to a few core values: honesty, clarity, and usefulness.

“Honesty is the key,” Ashley said with conviction. “You have to respect your community. If you try anything that’s the least bit shady, they will immediately know it.”

Whether you’re addressing known issues, changing your infrastructure, or considering new features, being open, honest, and transparent about your plans is of paramount importance. “Say you’re building some sort of software, and you want to promote the fact that it scales,” she offered as an example. “When you’re writing copy for a developer audience, everything you say has to be actually true because the first thing someone is going to do when they read it is test the product. You can’t lie.”

Related read: I Asked 50+ Developers How They Buy Software. Here’s What I Learned.

Clearly, the phrase truth in marketing is not a sarcastic concept when marketing to developers. Highly engaged developer communities and social media channels up the ante by giving disillusioned developers platforms upon which to voice their ire.

“If you aren’t truthful, your audience will call you out,” Ashley said. “Just look at the Twitter feeds of any of the top developer companies and you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of people complaining about things they felt were done improperly.” She added that, in most cases, the causes of such outcries are not the result of “bad marketing” as much as they are the result of innocent oversight.

Being clear and direct are two attributes that are highly valued by the developer set. “With developer marketing, you have to be very clear. It’s almost like you need to speak a different language.” Ashley said. “There’s a different way of writing when you’re addressing a developer audience. It’s very direct, almost like technical writing. Think about a lab report—you don’t add extra words, you just say exactly what you’re trying to say—no sugar coating, no fluff.”

Finally, as problem solvers, developers naturally value things that are inherently useful—including marketing.

“You have to make sure that the marketing materials you’re putting out into the world are actually helpful. Engineers are naturally curious people who will be far more interested in content that teaches them something rather than just trying to get them to buy.”

For this reason, marketing initiatives that include tutorials, lunch-and-learns, and so forth are usually a good fit for this audience.

At GitLab, Ashley included many such events in her marketing plan, often partnering with other companies to expand the depth and breadth of information she delivers to her audience. She also launched a lunch-and-learn roadshow that took her team to meet with developer communities in New York, San Francisco, and London. “It’s not just to teach them about GitLab,” she said. “It’s also about giving back to the community by teaching them something valuable about DevOps or whatever other topic is most relevant. Almost everything we do is about teaching.”

Big picture tactical tips

In addition to helping her develop these strategic core values, Ashley’s career experience has provided her ample opportunity to hone her in-the-trenches tactical skills. Here are just a few of the real-world marketing lessons she’s learned while managing hundreds of successful campaigns:

Stop saying yes to everyone
Her first piece of advice is as applicable to life as it is to marketing. “When you start a new job, it’s human nature to want to say yes to everyone,” she said. “You want to make everyone happy, but at some point you have to realize that you can’t do that.” Instead, Ashley recommends starting the process by talking with people in order to identify the points of alignment within the organization. Then, you can step back and create a strong plan.

Just don’t, she warned, “fall into the trap of making promises you can’t keep during those initial conversations. Keep your perspective.”

Know your community
As an open source product, GitLab has to be especially aware of their community; but understanding the people who use your software is important for any SaaS company.

“The community is everything,” Ashley said. “If they’re unhappy and stop contributing, your product is done.”

She added that many marketers don’t realize just how much is involved in successfully establishing and maintaining a strong community relationship. “If developers don’t like you, they won’t use your product. So, you need to always stay on top of the relationship.”

Stay focused on your audience
While events tend to be a popular tactic when marketing to developers, Ashley cautions against any marketer over-focusing on any one channel. In her experience, successful marketing uses a combination of channels and is optimized based on which channels perform best for the specific audience.

Using events as an example, she pointed out that whether they are a good idea is not a yes or no question. Some people love events, and some people hate them. The point is to stay focused on your audience.

“Events can be great when they’re done right,” said Ashley. “They’re good for the community and for getting face-to-face. It makes sense from a sales perspective. But, you have to make sure it’s a developer-focused event because you’re selling to developers. You can mix in some of the stuff the sales team wants to talk about, but only on top of the core tutorial, developer content.”

Maintain a regular internal communications cadence
The GitLab team was remote long before the pandemic. Working remotely might trip up some marketing teams, but GitLab’s system keeps everyone in sync. While individuals are usually heads down on their own tasks, the team engages in quick ongoing conversations via Slack and adheres to an established schedule of regular meetings.

In addition to company team calls every Monday through Thursday, Ashley’s marketing team held a quarterly summit for planning, a monthly meeting to review active campaigns, a twice-weekly standup meeting to get tactical about who’s doing what, and a monthly town hall at which they presented to the whole company. Ashley also scheduled one-on-one conversations with each of her team members on a bi-weekly basis.

Related read: Leaders Eat on Camera—Advice from 10 Years of Leading Remote Teams

Though it may sound like a lot of meetings, the process worked. As Ashley explained us when she was still at GitLab, “Everyone is on the Slack marketing channel and GitLab issue tracker every day, so you can tell what everyone is working on based on that. We all work pretty asynchronously, so the meetings are really just a reinforcement to ask if anyone needs anything. Generally, they go pretty quickly because we’re all moving along together in GitLab and Slack.”

Insights on working with the technical CEO

Ashley has found that working with technical founders is not all that different from working with developers—direct without sugar coating—and she likes it that way. “They tell you exactly what they want,” she said. “At other companies, marketing often ends up answering to non-technical people who don’t understand the product fully and are much more ‘fluffy.’ I don’t enjoy that.”

Besides getting used to direct communication, she also found that technical CEOs tend to expect marketing initiatives and performance to be data-driven. In other words, prepare to know your numbers. “You need to frame your marketing conversations in terms a technical person will understand,” she explained. “You can’t just say, ‘We’re doing a giant campaign and someone’s going to be happy’—you have to actually tie what you’re doing back to metrics. You need to connect the dots between the brand’s touchy-feely stuff and the numbers.”

Finally, Ashley returned to the concepts of honesty and transparency. “If something goes wrong, just say it’s gone wrong,” she said. “I’ve found that technical, founder CEOs are very dialed in to many different parts of the business. They’ll find out if you’re not telling the truth.”

Really, successful partnerships with technical CEOs are built on the same values as relationships with developers: getting stuff done, being honest and direct, and building something useful.

Learn more about selling to developers

OpenView is putting the final touches on The Developer-Focused Go-to-Market Playbook—an essential read for everyone at developer-focused companies. Sign up to be the first to know when it’s available.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2016 and was updated in May 2021.