Reflections on One Year in as a Developer Advocate; Travel

In the second part of my series on of my first year as a developer advocate I will take a look at one of the big privileges and hassles of developer advocacy; travel. Let’s take a look at some ways to make travel less stressful and more enjoyable.

Dealing with Security

Airport security is something everyone hates about air travel, particularly if you are a US citizen, or traveling in the US often. Long lines, having to pull apart your carefully packed bag, and taking off your shoes is frustrating. Going through customs can be a difficult experience as well as lines can become extremely long if several flights arrive at the same time.

A way to make dealing with security much easier is to get TSA Pre-check, and if you will be traveling in and out of the US often, Global Entry (note TSA Pre-check comes with Global Entry).  For a $85 fee, or $100 if you get Global Entry, and filling out a form you will be able to go through the TSA Pre-check line which means you don’t have to remove large electronics, nor liquids from your bag, and can keep your shoes on. TSA Pre-check lines are also typically shorter and unsurprisingly move faster than normal security. TSA Pre-check/Global Entry are easily some of the best money spent when it comes to making travel more enjoyable (or at least less aggravating).

A couple more notes when it comes to international travel. Even non-US citizens/residents can apply for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check. Several countries also have similar systems to Global Entry*, depending on where your organization may be sending you, it may be worth it to apply for one of those programs as well. Many of these programs are also similarly available to non-citizens.

Benefits to Loyalty

When traveling only a few times a year, if you were like me, you’d prioritized cost and convenience over brand when booking flights or hotels. At this level of travel it makes sense to prioritize those factors as you will likely not accrue enough frequent flyer miles or hotel nights to get many benefits from being a member of a loyalty program, but when you are making dozens of trips a year you might want to reconsider your priorities around how you book travel.

Your primary air carrier or hotel provider might be chosen for you by your organization. However if you do get to choose, you will want to do some research. There are three major air alliances: Star, SkyTeam, OneWorld, if you live near an airport that is a hub to an airline that is part of one of those alliances that will probably be your best choice. You will get more flight options as we as more direct flights. Considerations might be where you are flying to. If you are like me and you home airport is a “spoke“, then research to see which airline best suits your needs. For hotels, the three biggest super chains are: Marriott, Hilton, and IHG. Marriott probably has the best coverage of the three, but often they all have presence in the same markets. If you are traveling outside of North America/Europe your hotel chain choices might change a bit.

With both airlines and hotels, initially the benefits of loyalty seem pretty minimal. Slightly earlier boarding and free bottled water aren’t exactly significant benefits, but persistence can start to payoff. Getting to the second, third, and above loyalty tiers start to provide pretty significant benefits. For airlines this can mean upgrades to higher classes, much earlier boarding (which is good if you have a carry-on), and more flexibility when it comes to re-arranging travel plans. For hotels you can get upgraded to a nicer room, more flexibility with checkout, and free breakfast. In both cases you can also start to accrue a large number of loyalty points which can be used for vacations, upgrades, or bringing your significant other with you on a trip.

A tradeoff to getting to the highest tiers of loyalty can mean occasional inconvenience. Your primary air carrier might not always offer the most convenient flights, your primary hotel chain might not always be the closest to a conference venue. On a recent trip to Oslo, I stayed at a hotel that was a 30 minute bus ride both ways each day, but it was also a long stay so I earned some much needed nights. It’s a balancing act, sometimes it might make sense to to take the more inconvenient flight or hotel, other times not.

Pack a “Go Bag”

I can be a bit forgetful at times. I have forgotten noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, and a few other items here and there. While it’s a bit annoying to forget these things, I never forgotten anything too important because I always have it pre-packed in my “go bag”. My go bag includes all the toiletries I need, under garments, exercise clothes (more on that in a little), adapters, and a number of other important essentials.

Building a “go bag” will require a bit of an investment as it will mean buying duplicates of a number of items you typically only need “one”, but it’s money well spent. When I am preparing for a trip I typically on need pack a few pairs of pants and shirts. Not only does this only take a few minutes, but is also way less stressful. I’m not thinking if I packed enough socks, underwear or if I remembered a toothbrush and toothpaste? My go bag has about 80% of what I need, which means only having to worry about the last 20%.

Staying Healthy

Travel is hard on your body. There is the jet lag, airports and airplanes are the breeding ground for germs (I once saw a parent change a baby on the tray table in a plane), and being away from home can make it hard to maintain healthy routines. So let’s look at how to stay healthy while you travel.

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Allergies, headaches, colds, stomach/digestive problems, they are inevitably going to happen. Being prepared is important, so I bought a pill case that has medicine for handling some of the common concerns. This has come in handy for me a number of times, I have also been able to help friends and colleagues who were dealing with a headache or upset stomach. It’s small and convenient. Though, in some of that earned wisdom, I would recommend getting larger pill case to carry a larger amount/variety of medicine.

In the previous section on the “go bag” I mention I always have exercise clothes packed and ready to go. This was a lesson learned after forgetting exercise shoes, or shorts, or shirts. I have had trips were I have been gone for several days to even weeks, and I can start to feel it in my body when I have gone that long with out any real activity. Exercise is important element to a healthy lifestyle and I would recommend exercising in the morning as you have more control over your schedule at that time. If exercising isn’t an option, find opportunities to walk. Travel is one of the privileges of being a developer advocate, take the opportunity and advantage by walking around and visiting some of the scenic locations of the places you are visiting.

Finally try to make healthy choices when eating while traveling. When it comes to weight the saying goes, it’s ounces in the gym and pounds in the kitchen. It’s not always easy, but eating fruit for breakfast, limiting the number of drinks you have at social (or avoiding drinking or the social hour altogether), can make a difference, especially in the aggregate. The social activities are definitely another perk of being a developer advocate, but be careful to not over indulge.

Trying to Be Green(er)

In a world that is starting to feel the effects of climate change, I am definitely conscious that my recent career change to developer advocacy has enormously increased my carbon footprint. There is no way around that a round trip from the US to Europe creates roughly 1 ton of CO2 per passenger. So what are some ways we can be responsible global citizens in our careers?

A very direct way would be buying carbon offsets. Here is a recent article answering some questions if you are interested in that area. Another advantage of buying carbon offsets is that is artificially increases the cost of travel for you. If you are spending hundreds of dollars purchasing carbon offsets, you might reconsider some trips, or trying to find ways to combine them.

On the subject of combining trips, while it doesn’t reduce carbon emissions, one can be more “efficient” with those emissions. As Roy’s tweet above suggests, flying across the world for a single talk isn’t very environmentally conscious. If you are having to make that trip, try reaching out to user groups in the nearby area. When submitting to a conference, see if there are other conferences nearby that can be included in the same trip. Try reaching out to the client facing members of your organization to see if there are any of your clients in the area, or if an event of some kind can be organized. Flying around the world to give a single presentation can feel wasteful, flying around the world to give two, three, four, or more presentations can start to feel more sensible.

Travel Self-Care

Travel can be very taxing, so it’s important to consider self-care when traveling. If you are crossing many time zones, adding an extra day to the start of the travel to allow you time to acclimate to the new timezone can be helpful. Additionally setting clear boundaries with your organization making sure you have enough time at home for recovery and spending time with friends and family can also be important.

There can be a feeling that taking this extra time is “selfish”, but it makes good sense even from the perspective of your organization. If you are severely sleep deprived when giving a presentation, running a workshop, or helping out with booth duties, you’re not going to be delivering quality work. Additionally if you are feeling overly stressed or run down because you don’t have time to recover from travel, that’s going to lead to burnout and/or inability to produce content/prepare for future travel.

Sometimes pushing for this additional time or cost associated with travel will require self-advocacy toward management, but appreciate that your well-being is important for both yourself and your organization.

Some Final Tips

  • If you are in a city for only a single night, stay at an airport hotel. Airport hotels will typically have a free shuttle service and because they are closer you also can sleep in later and generally worry less about making it to the airport in time.
  • Pack an umbrella. It’s lighter, smaller, and better at keeping you dry than a raincoat, you can also just keep it in your backpack so it’s always handy. My umbrella has saved me a number of times when inclement weather suddenly showed up.
  • Airport lounge access can make long layovers a bit more enjoyable. Membership fees are often several hundred dollars, check to see if your organization would cover membership, if not most airlines let you use points in-lieu of money.
  • Loyalty programs often rollover by the calendar year. While you will maintain your same status level into the new year, you will start again at 0 for building up frequent flyer miles and hotel nights for status. As you get towards the end of the year, check to make sure you aren’t going to miss out on reaching a desired status level tier, otherwise it will have to wait until probably late next year before you reach it.
  • There is no real disadvantage to being member to multiple loyalty programs, so it’s a good idea to join all of them so at least you can accumulate points and status when you aren’t able to fly/stay with your primary.
  • Be sure to carry credit cards from multiple carriers, particularly Master Card and Visa. Also having a bank card with you is helpful as some countries strongly favor bank cards or so you can withdraw cash if needed (and not incur huge fees).

Conclusion

Travel can be fun, it can also be a hassle. You do enough travel and you inevitably run have some bad experiences. There are ways though of making those bad experiences less bad and also reducing some of the stress around travel. Joining programs to make it easier to go through security, pre-packing some of your luggage, and taking advantage of loyalty programs can help to reduce some of the stress around travel and also make it a bit more enjoyable.

Reflections on One Year in as a Developer Advocate; Content

This month marks my one year anniversary with IBM which is also my first full year as a developer advocate. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on lessons learned and share the wisdom gained from my first year as a developer advocate. This will be a three part series focusing on different aspects that come with being a developer advocate; content creation, travel, and being an advocate for developers.

I hope this series offers a glimpse of what it’s like to be a developer advocate; both the highs and lows, though word of caution this is my experience as a developer advocate so what I say shouldn’t be taken as a universal truth. Take as one opinionated view of being a developer advocate, but also be sure to take in other views as well.

Content by Developers for Developers

Content creation is easily where I have spent most of my time as a developer advocate. Content can come in many forms; blog articles, podcasts, presentations, workshops, proof of concepts/working examples, and so on. What content you will be creating will vary depending upon your own strengths and preferences, as well as the needs of your organization. No content is inherently better, though having a mix is good so as to  appeal to and support the needs of a larger audience.

Content creation can be an extremely time consuming and at times mentally taxing process. When your content has a technical aspect, there can be an extensive problem solving and investigative component as you actually build the technical resource. This part is probably not surprising to any developers, what is surprising is, is that the creative process, that is the actual creation of the content itself (i.e. the writing of an article, recording of a video, etc.) can be just as time consuming. At least for me I spend a large amount of time writing, re-writing, and editing my content to make sure it flows easily and is clear in its message.

Because content creation can be a time consuming process, finding ways to reuse content is key. A blog article can become a presentation, or vice versa, a demo can be expanded into a workshop. Taking existing content and transforming it in to different forms can not only save you a lot of time, but also make that content more accessible and usable to a larger audience. A presentation has an important human aspect that some find engaging, however not everyone can attend a presentation, so by taking your presentation and writing a blog article not only draws more value out of the work you already did, but also helps make your content make accessible to a wider audience.

Be sure to give yourself realistic timelines and/or set aside enough time for content creation. A big change that comes with being a developer advocate is the frequent hard deadlines. If you are producing content for an event; conference, meetup, client meeting, etc., your content has to be ready by the agreed upon time. There will inevitably be times where you will be frantically finishing a presentation moments before going on stage, but it is best to avoid this by making sure you are setting realistic deadlines before hand.

Tip of the Spear, Edge of the Knife

As a developer advocate, you will often be working with the cutting edge of technology. The content creation covered above, a large portion of it will be for your organization explaining to developers how to consume your organization’s services/products. This means a couple of things:

  1. You will often be operating in an information vacuum, one you are working to fill! As you run into issues, you should reach out to members of your organization who work on the product you are writing about. This can not only help you in the problem solving process, but also be an opportunity for early feedback for the teams at your organization on how a product or service might be improved.
  2. Because API and offerings are not yet in their final form, you might have to often go back and re-verify everything described in your content still works the same way. It has happened several times now where a step or process has changed between the time I wrote an article and the time it has been published. There is also the curation of released content. Organization will add new features, deprecate features, and change features to match the needs of their users, as your organization goes through this process, it is important for you to update content that you have created that might be affected.

Be Clear

I couldn’t agree more with Amara on this point, clear documentation is incredibly valuable. I cannot count the number of times I have read documentation where crucial steps were skipped or elements within a sample piece of code/configuration were glossed over. Being clear, complete, but also concise can really elevate your content.

The best advice I can give when you are creating content is to appreciate that your audience is not going to be nearly as familiar with the technology you are describing as you are (after all its the reason they are consuming your content!). As developers we often experience this with users interacting with our applications in ways we don’t predict. So in the same way when developing an application keeping in mind that many users will only rarely use your application is a beneficial trait for a developer, keeping a similar mindset when it comes to creating content is also beneficial for developer advocates.

Be Cautious of Overpromising

More than anything else, the biggest problem I have had in my transition to developer advocacy is over promising when it comes to content. While working as a staff software engineer deadlines were somewhat fungible. As a developer advocate hard deadlines are very common.

Dealing with hard deadlines of completing a presentation, workshop, or demo for a conference, user group, or client visit, can lead to a lot of stress, anxiety, and late nights. Sometimes this happens because a small task ends up being much larger than expected, as developers we have all ran into that seemingly innocent ticket consuming your entire week. Because of the frequency of hard deadlines, be mindful of not over-committing yourself. Burning yourself out with constant stress and late nights, or having a failed presentation because you weren’t able to complete it neither helps yourself nor your organization.

Helping Yourself as You Are Help Others

While much of this article to this point has been warning of the dangers and difficulties of creating content creation, it is also among the most rewarding aspects of being a developer advocate. Receiving a thank you from someone because they found your presentation, article, or code example helpful is incredibly rewarding. I also cannot count the number of times I have gone back to reference an article or proof-of-concept I created when working on something only tangentially related. For me at least, it reinforces that the content I am creating has value.

As a developer advocate I have also been forced into learning many more aspects of the software development pipeline. I have been a Java developer for over a decade, but until joining IBM, I only had a very vague understanding of the JVM. While I wouldn’t label myself a JVM expert, because I of my work with Eclipse OpenJ9, I have a much deeper understanding of JVMs, and how they operate. Another area as developer I often didn’t interact a lot with was operations and platform technologies. While it has at times been a frustrating experience in the past year learning about technologies like Docker, Kubernetes, these will be valuable skills going forward.

The learning process while at times difficult and stressful is also satisfying and incredibly rewarding. Because I am working with so many different technologies and practices I never feel like I am in a rut, which is a pleasant contrast from my experiences as a developer.

Conclusion

Content creation is a time consuming but rewarding process. As a developer advocate there is a good chance many of your highs and lows will come from content creation. The most important points to remember is set realistic estimates and avoid overpromising and you will hopefully avoid a good chunk of the stress and anxiety I have experienced in my first year as a developer advocate.