IT career roadmap: Developer advocate

What does a developer advocate do and how can you start on this rewarding career path? A MongoDB developer advocate shares his story and tips for success.

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A developer advocate is someone who promotes the interests of developers and works to make it easier for them to use software to accomplish their goals. Developers in this role are "the voice of a community of developers who may have insight into enhancing or changing a product,” according to ZipRecruiter. “Your duties are to listen to the issues that developers are having [...] research possible ways to address these problems, and bring them to the attention of the company that makes the product.”

hubert nguyen mongodb IDG

Hubert Nguyen is a senior developer advocate for MongoDB.

To become a developer advocate, an individual should have spent several years working in the application development and user experience fields, ZipRecruiter says. You also should be able to understand the issues developers might face when trying to use a particular platform. Other attributes include strong communication skills and the ability to listen to people’s concerns and develop actionable plans for addressing them.

To find out what’s involved in becoming a developer advocate, I spoke with Hubert Nguyen, senior developer advocate at the database software company, MongoDB.

Early education and interests

Nguyen attended HEIG Marnes La Vallee, a private school near Paris, France, where he studied computer science for two years with an emphasis on databases. There's no one-to-one equivalent to a US degree, he says, but the French degree he earned in 1995, along with four years of professional experience in France, was deemed by the US government to be equivalent to a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science.

“I learned of this during my US immigration process, when my immigration attorneys arranged for the translation and evaluation of my diploma,” Nguyen says.

As a child, Nguyen had an interest in architecture, but seeing the first videogame consoles made him want to become a game programmer. “I always liked building things, and software engineering is a career where I do just that,” he says.

High school didn’t offer much in computer science at the time and computers were still expensive, Nguyen says. “However, I was fascinated by the pixel graphics of arcade games and early consumer-level computers and consoles,” he says. “I always had a knack for drawing on paper, and the possibilities of computer graphics seemed promising, if not unlimited. It's ironic given how primitive these graphics were.”

A passion for 3D graphics

While still studying at HEIG, Nguyen worked for the game development and publishing company Cryo Interactive Entertainment as a research and development (R&D team) software engineer.

“At this time, there was no formal ‘game coding’ curriculum and everyone was self-taught,” Nguyen says. “I was part of the small R&D team tasked to write the company's next-generation 3D engine. My area of focus was 3D rendering code, mostly in assembly language, a skill I had acquired from coding contests.”

In 1999, Nguyen joined computer hardware company 3DFX Interactive as a senior software engineer. He spent a few months doing developer support work, then joined the Developer Technology Group to code 3D graphics applications and techniques to demonstrate the power of the 3DFX graphics processing unit (GPU).

“The PC graphics business was booming, but was also extremely competitive, and a day prior to my departure to a nice European vacation, 3DFX announced it was going under and all of its intellectual property would be acquired by arch-rival NVIDIA,” Nguyen says. “What a great start to my vacation.”

But while Nguyen was on vacation, NVIDIA offered him a position as a graphics engineer on its Demo Team. “This group is also meant to do the same kind of research and development on next-generation 3D graphics rendering techniques,” he says.

Such techniques would inspire game developers to adopt new GPU 3D features in their upcoming games, which would spur new GPUs adoption, Nguyen says. “This was a great way to accelerate new hardware adoption at a time when GPUs were [not] yet capable of general computing,” he says.

The position at NVIDIA was essentially the same type of job he was doing at 3DFX, Nguyen says, but with better, faster 3D hardware After several years Nguyen was named manager of developer education at the company, managing the creation, production, and distribution of computer graphics educational material such as the NVIDIA developer website, publications, and conferences.

Becoming a developer advocate

In August 2007, Nguyen left NVIDIA to pursue a new venture, Ubergizmo, a consumer technology media company he co-founded as a hobby. “The site quickly became popular, got mentions from big media, and gathered a great following,” he says.

With his background, Nguyen could write about technology with a different perspective. At the same time, his programming skills let him and his team run the website cost-effectively with near-perfect Google Speed performance scores. In 2014, they built a product database with complex data structures typically found in much larger websites. “That database was built using an impressive up-and-coming developer data platform, MongoDB,” he says.

And this led to Nguyen’s current position as a senior developer advocate at MongoDB. “During the pandemic, I had helped some businesses boost their online presence and I really liked helping other developers and entrepreneurs improve their immediate technical skills,” he says. “I wanted more. I tried freelancing and it was nice, but the jobs were repetitive because people tend to hire you based on something you had previously done.”

Nguyen learned that MongoDB was looking for developer advocates, so he applied to a position that seemed like a perfect match for his skills and interests. “As a paying MongoDB customer, I already knew important aspects of the product and could bring that organic customer perspective with me,” he says.

In his new role, “there is much more to learn because MongoDB's platform has such breadth and depth,” he says. “I need to be able to help the broadest possible spectrum of developers.”

Typical workday or week

“At a very high level, our job as developer advocates is to make other developers better and more productive,” Nguyen says. “On a daily basis, it might be implemented by writing technical articles, code samples, or applications in the MongoDB developer center.”

Nguyen might also be presenting at a conference including the company’s own MongoDB World. “Our team also has a podcast, produces YouTube videos, [and] contributes to our developer forums and to in-person developer community events,” he says. “These are the most visible aspects of developer advocacy. Internally, some developer advocate's demos and workshops are subsequently re-used by field engineers, sales, and marketing.”

A typical week involves working on a mix of these activities, based on ever-changing developer needs and wants. “At any given time, I have about five projects in flight that I juggle,” Nguyen says. “This is a team activity too, and it is common for several of us to work on a project.”

Learning on the job

After the onboarding process at MongoDB, “our team has an internal training program to help new developer advocates quickly grasp the most critical aspects of MongoDB,” Nguyen says. “In my case, I joined with some experience of the MongoDB platform, but as an external developer I only had a narrow set of knowledge required to make my product work. As developer advocates, we need to have a much broader understanding of ‘data’ in general. Developers have been using all kinds of legacy data systems, and we must be as knowledgeable as possible to relate with their struggles and show them how they could be more productive.”

Memorable career moments

In 2000, Nguyen was on stage at the 3DFX Immersion event during the Game Developer Conference. “It was my first professional talk and I presented [two demonstrations] to hundreds of developers, including my former Cryo colleagues seated in the front row,” he says. “The audience gave a standing ovation, and that's something I'll never forget.”

During the original iPad launch, Ubergizmo was at the event and featured a "live blog" site with minute-by-minute text and photo updates. “The consumer interest was so huge, other tech sites were crashing one after the other so people flocked to Ubergizmo,” Nguyen says. “Our infrastructure held up and within that hour we had accumulated more than 6 million views. What a blast!”

Biggest inspirations

“As a child, I was fascinated by animation movies and anime, so the creativity of people like Walt Disney or prolific Japanese manga author Tsukasa Hojo have been inspirations for me,” Nguyen says. “At age nine I could accurately draw the poster of Disney's 'The Rescuers.' In my teens, I often drew characters from the manga 'City Hunter.'”

It was the introduction of 3D games that Nguyen says changed his life and career path. “The work of talented game developers like Yu Suzuki (SEGA) inspired me to be one of the first hobbyists to create animated 3D fighters in a coding contest,” he says. “Watching programming geniuses [showed] how much a small team could handle in the mid-'90s and 2000s. They inspired me to write my first 3D engine from scratch. From a business standpoint, NVIDIA's CEO Jensen Huang is the most talented and visionary leader I have interacted with. It was amazing to see him operate and motivate thousands of people towards a clearly defined goal.”

Best career advice

“My mom always told me ‘find a job you enjoy,’ and I certainly followed that one,” Nguyen says. “The NVIDIA Demo Team taught me to be a team player, as it was a colossal group effort where individual contributions are celebrated and credit was given. No one was ever left behind. One of my employers emphasized to be confident yet humble. It's okay to embrace failure if you learn something from it. It's impossible to innovate without failing—often—along the way.”

“Listen to others and have empathy,” Nguyen says. “Listening and understanding others is really important to figure out what others might be struggling with before helping them. You need good communication skills to educate and help developers improve their knowledge and skills. Love learning. Be curious. You're at the forefront of a technology that moves fast, and it takes a lot of work to keep up.”

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