Building a Developer Community

Focus your community on helping developers reach their goals.

You already understand the importance of developers and creating a strong developer community.

For me, nothing makes the critical role of developers more clear then Stephen O’Grady description from his book The New Kingmakers: How Developers Conquered the World:

“In the wake of Apple’s unprecedented success, one obvious question remains: if IT decision makers aren’t making the decisions any longer, who is calling the shots?

The answer is developers. Developers are the most important constituency in technology. They have the power to make or break businesses…”

That last sentence cannot be emphasized enough: they have the power to make or break businesses. 

This can be demonstrated regardless of your company size, or even who your primary customers are. To illustrate — the last three companies I have worked for have had very different challenges.

When I joined MuleSoft (CRM), it was a small 300-person company that had just launched an enterprise version of their open-source service bus — focusing on trying to acquire large business customers  When I joined Tigera, it was a new stealth startup trying to impact the Cloud Native space. Even today, as I am now with RingCentral (RNG), a far more established telecommunications company looking to revolutionize the way businesses communicate.

In each case, the company I was with was faced with stiff competition from very mature, and well-known competitors. And while each company was in a different industry, with different sized teams, and different focuses — the singular commonality was developers.

Three core model

Developers helped take MuleSoft from being an emerging service business to a community of over 400,000 and a $6.5 billion dollar acquisition. Developers helped propel Tigera’s Calico solution to become the defacto standard for container network security — powering the top cloud native platforms including Google (GKE), IBM, Microsoft Azure, and AWS. And in nearly every analyst review of RingCentral you will find mention of our Open API platform — empowering developers.

But having an open API or catering to developers isn’t enough to ensure success. Or even ensure that developers will like you. In the end, developers are all about something more: community.

Community is King

Everyone has a different idea of how to reach developers — although it usually falls into one of three buckets: Evangelism (including open source), Education, or Community. While all three buckets are extremely important and are designed to work together (known as the Three Core Model), it’s important to understand that they serve different purposes and offer different returns.

Three Core Model

Three Core Model by Mike Stowe. Design copyright Devada.

Surprisingly, one of the most heavily invested in — evangelism — provides the lowest value when utilized outside of the Three Core Model. Evangelism is great for brand awareness and creates an initial excitement and connection to the company. Companies have built very successful campaigns around evangelism, but it can fail to create a sense of belonging or networking unless you are continuously active in open-source projects and events. That is hard to maintain long-term.

Used without the other two parts of the Three Core Model, Evangelism creates leads instead of relationships.

Education is extremely impactful and a tremendous tool for building website traffic, engagement, and a following. Perhaps no one has done a better job at education than Digital Ocean – where no matter what Linux dilemma you face you can find a Digital Ocean article. Education provides significant SEO and creates a resource that developers will come back to time and time again From a marketing perspective, it also helps create an echo chamber: what the developers learn they share, with your messaging behind it.

However, a strong education campaign requires developers who can write, writers who can connect with developers or a budget to hire contractors.

The third element of the core is Community. The whole purpose of community is to provide a place of commonality, a place of belonging. The best developer communities know that the community isn’t the MuleSoft or RingCentral community — it belongs to the developers who make up the community. It’s not about how they view your company, it’s how they view themselves. It’s no longer about getting them to do something for you, or about leads — it’s about a symbiotic relationship.

Leads are people you want to do something. Relationships are people who want to do something for you.

This makes community one of the most powerful tools you have. By itself, community provides the greatest return — offering a direct channel to your developers. And when done correctly, it is a place for your developers to come to not because they have to, but because they want to.

Content is King

In 1996, Bill Gates famously made the declaration that “Content is King.” A quick search of “Content is King” on Google reveals 4.4 BILLION results — perhaps nothing more intriguing than Forbes’ declaration that not only is content the king, but “Content will ALWAYS be King.”

Gail Goodman of Constant Contact explained the importance of social communities in terms of purchasing decisions:

“We trust complete strangers more than we do companies…”

That means every single word your community says and shares about you is automatically more trustworthy than anything you, your evangelists, or anyone in your company says.

If you see an advertisement for a new restaurant with enticing pictures of the sushi or descriptions of the barbecue, you aren’t likely to take those descriptions at face value. More likely, you are going to check Yelp for reviews and comments from complete strangers. The second you see the 1-star average rating – it doesn’t really matter what the food looks like or what the restaurant says — you’ve put your trust in random strangers.

Beyond trust, content does something that evangelism can’t — it scales. For example, when I was at MuleSoft, our community created over $2 million worth of content — ranging from videos, blog posts, reviews, to published books! But we didn’t do it alone (more on that in a minute.)

Instead of customers reaching out to us to ask about MuleSoft, they immersed themselves in our hosted forums, on StackOverflow, on Reddit, in our Champions program, and on other mediums.

MStowe_blog_post

Perhaps, just as importantly, all of the content our community created also made it easier for developers to use our platform. Where our tutorials didn’t suffice, the community stepped in to help each other, guide each other, and create content that could be shared, highlighted, and used again and again.

Rather than having to create these pieces of content ourselves, our community became the primary driver of content.

Developers are King

Hopefully, I’ve explained that while all the parts of the Three Core Model are important, I start with community. It’s the first place I look at when building a new developer program.

if you’re reading this from a business perspective and looking at the benefits the community can bring, you need to think about the tone the community sets. A community is what you put into it. If you move forward to build a self-serving community — your community will reflect that and the few developers that join will come with a “take” attitude.

At the same time, if you decide to build an exclusive community — one that highlights just your VIPs — you will find that the developers parrot that behavior, excluding others and looking down on newcomers.

Instead, your community should be focused on how you can help developers achieve their goals. How you can help them grow their skills, grow their careers, and get more out of your company. If you approach with the mindset that the community is for them (spoiler alert — it is), then you’ll find that you foster a helpful, giving, and unselfish community. A community that is about something far more than your company, even if your company will gain incredible benefits from it.

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