A Masterclass in Scaling Developer-First Products With Industry Veteran Eeke de Milliano
Developers have become increasingly powerful decision makers and influencers within organizations, with purchasing powers of their own and dedicated budgets—particularly in light of the explosive growth of GenAI. An early wave of now-famous unicorns (Stripe, Twilio, Github, etc.) uniquely transformed how to build developer-first platforms by putting developers at the heart of every decision. Unlike most enterprise sales businesses, which focused on selling to the executive/CTO level, these companies benefited from understanding the rising power of individual developers and targeting them as key decision makers in the software purchasing process. To understand how to scale developer-first products, I went deep with Eeke de Milliano, an industry veteran who began her career as Stripe’s first Account Executive before becoming one of their first product managers. Most recently, she was Head of Product at Retool.
A Developer-First Philosophy Should Permeate Every Team and Decision
The first wave of companies made sure that the developer-first philosophy wasn’t just a buzzword—it was deeply ingrained in every facet of the company’s operations. Every department (marketing, product, engineering, sales, customer success/service, etc.) should partake in making this successful. To genuinely uphold a developer-first commitment, everything—from the company’s setup and incentive structures to its go-to-market strategy, product hiring and development, pricing, and even customer onboarding—should be meticulously curated with developers in mind. This comprehensive approach ensures that developers are not just a target audience, but the driving force behind every strategic decision made by every team. Below, we give examples and learnings from successful examples of developer-first businesses of how the different functions within an organization can contribute to this developer-first ideology.
1. Marketing Has a Steadfast Focus on Developers
More specifically, product marketing and developer relations are prioritized over sales marketing and are usually the first two functions to build. The company website and blog also become primary channels to explain and launch products.
Take Stripe, for example: Stripe’s initial homepage not only declared “Payments for developers,” but also went a step further by embedding working code snippets, including a curl command with a functioning API key. Furthermore, Stripe’s first marketing hire, Krithika Muthukumar, was a developer herself.
A more recent example is Pinecone, which is part of the modern AI stack and helps developers build production-ready RAG (Retrieval Augmented Generation) apps with an enterprise-grade vector database. Developer relations at Pinecone is world-class, and their Head of Developer Relations, James Briggs, has become a bit of a celebrity. James’ technical tear-downs, learning resources, and videos regularly amass tens of thousands of views and contribute heavily to Pinecone’s successful PLG motion.
Harness, which was founded by Jyoti Bansal (founder of AppDynamics), regularly hosts hackathons, community events, and conferences to get consistent, on-the-ground coverage with developers. Neon, the serverless Postgres company founded by the legendary Nikita Shamgunov, who previously founded Singlestore, uses Twitter to highlight new features, use cases, and customer quotes. The ongoing curated feed of posts is used to illustrate to its growing community a tight feedback loop and amazing product velocity. Neon also consistently delivers high-quality video marketing on Fireship, one of the primary Youtube channels for developers as a way to activate new users. The team understands the core channels to not only engage new developers, but also how to utilize the same channels to keep existing users happy and active.
2. Sales Helps Developers Make the Case to Other Stakeholders
One of the key insights in building developer-first products is understanding that, while developers are the entry point into an organization, they are usually not the sole decision-makers, especially at larger companies. Finance, founders, operations teams, and other executives are also essential to the process. An effective sales team helps developers make the case to internal stakeholders and executives. At Retool, the sales team does extensive POCs, building Retool apps alongside buyers to showcase the product’s value before the buyers commit to an annual contract.
Twilio’s sales team follows a similar playbook. For small companies and SMBs, developers are the sole decision makers, and sales intervention is unnecessary. But for mid-market to enterprise companies, sales strategically helps the developer navigate their organization, and teams are bifurcated into mid-market and enterprise.
For an example of a newer upstart, look no further than Orb, the leading next-gen provider for pricing and billing infrastructure, which counts Neon, Replit, Materialize, and Airbyte as customers. Monetization is a company initiative that reaches across engineering, product, sales, and finance. Not only has Orb beautifully productized value for each stakeholder in the platform, but the sales team has created playbooks for how to sell to each persona. The team understands that, while developers do the technical evaluation, other stakeholders have an equal, if not outsized, weight on the ultimate vendor of choice.
3. R&D Ensures World-Class API and Documentation
Documentation should be considered a first-class function. This is commonplace knowledge now, but that wasn’t always the case. Making sure that docs are meticulously maintained should be an important part of any launch process and ongoing work. Stripe is commonly noted as the original gold standard for world-class API documentation. Their unique, three-panel presentation delivers a comprehensive guide to the API—from summarizing its functions and detailing methods and parameters to illustrating real-world usage examples. Furthermore, their focus on clear, concise language devoid of traditional industry jargon alongside practical examples makes developer ramp-up time significantly faster on the platform. Stripe’s internal style guide (that every employee is required to read) specifically asks employees to avoid industry jargon, writing and speaking to customers as if they are “a smart friend.” Additionally, the onboarding process aims to facilitate rapid developer productivity with an array of supportive tools and resources. In regard to the actual APIs, flexibility, intuitiveness, and reliability are paramount—allowing developers to tailor solutions to their specific needs and preventing them from creating their own solutions.
FireHydrant also has high-quality docs that are regularly updated, beautifully laid out, easy to understand, and engaging. Most recently, OpenAI’s documentation has gotten rave reviews from the developer community and is noted as a reason for its exponential community growth and usage. It’s pithy, intuitive, concise, and demonstrates quick time to value.
4. Customer Success Is a Shared Responsibility
Customer success should be viewed as a shared responsibility, reinforcing the commitment to the developer-first philosophy. During Eeke’s tenure, Retool had three teams of developers who built alongside people implementing the product: sales engineering (pre-sales), deployed engineering (post-sales), and support engineering (self-serve customers). Meanwhile, at Stripe, co-founders John and Patrick Collison expected everyone to engage with and answer support tickets. While particularly beneficial for developer-first companies, this practice is an effective strategy regardless of the target persona, as it fosters a tight feedback loop between all levels of the organization and the customers. Direct engagement through support tickets and follow-up calls allows for an intimate understanding of the customer experience, highlighting areas for improvement while facilitating real-time problem-solving.
This can be taken even a step further by spending time where developers are (in places like IRC) and making sure that developer-to-developer conversations are happening. Retool’s first support hire was someone who taught himself how to develop in Retool so he could build internal tools for the events company he worked at. The company often hired people already building with Retool outside of the company to then build, sell, and support Retool customers inside the company. Midjourney is doing something sort of similar right now by being all in on Discord.
Thank you, Eeke, for sharing your invaluable insights. Great teams that prioritize customer needs above all can build great products and, consequently, great companies. It is always a pleasure to bring together such phenomenal product leaders who share their experiences and learnings. This inspires us and provides practical insights to anyone focused on launching impactful products and companies.