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Building Blocks for an Innovative and Inclusive Developer Community: Part 1 Sarah-Jane Morris

SJ Morris is an experienced community builder of 15 years, 8 of which were spent building inclusive developer communities for companies like Mashery, Intel, Keen.io and Shopify. She is Founder and Principal Consultant of developer community consultancy, Listen Community Consulting, and this is Part 1 of her 3-part series on why and how to build a community that ultimately makes your product and company stronger.

Part 1: Early Stage Considerations

It’s essential for early-stage startups to focus on what matters. While that’s a little different from company to company, most seed-stage or series A startups are focused on building out a product that can scale, and generating the revenue needed to secure more runway. In the case of developer-facing products that solve a real pain point, a community of early adopters and advocates may already be organically forming during this stage. While it may seem sufficient to lean on that organic growth for now and be more strategic about community building later, you may be missing out on opportunities to understand your product better, broaden your scope and lay the groundwork for a community that will impact your products’ innovation more than you could have imagined.

The Developer You’re Building for May Not Be Who You Think

You’re creating the next great developer product. It’s going to help speed up development cycles and delight developers along the way. You think you have a good idea of who the ideal devs are for your product. Are you sure about that?

One of the thrilling parts of building and growing a developer community is seeing all of the surprising ways developers will use your product. Companies like Kit used Shopify’s APIs in ways previously unseen and went on to be acquired by Shopify, becoming an indispensable marketing tool for Shopify’s merchants. If you put the right community frameworks in place early on, you can not only build a loyal set of early adopters, you can leverage your community to push the boundaries of what’s possible with your product.

Challenge Your Own Assumptions

In order to get into the minds of your current and potential community members, you need to step outside yourself and the network you know and trust. Your network will always be there to support and inform your company but to better understand the potential of a community of users, you need to understand how they’re interpreting your value proposition and imagining uses for your products with fresh eyes.

There are a number of ways to go about this, but they all involve one key thing: listening. Depending on the size of your current developer community, you can approach this in a number of ways. Developer user interviews can be insightful, even with all the internal feedback you may be generating while dogfooding your own product. Also, consider a developer survey. Not only will this give you a clear line of sight into the benefits and drawbacks your current users are experiencing, but it also gives you an opportunity to measure a baseline of the dimensions of diversity within your community, allowing you to set realistic goals around diversity and inclusion as you grow.

Seeking external validation of your ideas in your early stages needn’t be excessively complicated or time-consuming. There are valuable and inclusive developer communities that will happily engage with your idea or MVP and potentially become sources of community growth.

One such community that has exploded in popularity this year is dev.to, founded in 2017 as an offshoot of the popular Twitter account, @ThePracticalDev. Sharing your products and learnings with this inclusive, well moderated, and accessible developer community will pay off in the short-term with feedback you may not have otherwise gotten from your existing network, and in the long-term with the trust of a community that values inclusion. Conversely, communities like Hacker News, while sure to bring your site traffic and maybe even some conversions, has time and time again been shown to be a toxic community. Mekka Okereke, an engineer at Google, recently summed it up well in this twitter thread.

A Must for Community Health

If there’s one community investment to make in the early stages of your community’s growth, it’s a code of conduct. Even if you don’t yet have an online user community or forum, if you’re at all open source, or if you’re hosting events – anything from a casual happy hour to a conference, a code of conduct is a way to ensure developers of all walks of life feel protected and welcome in your community. Although it’s no longer being actively maintained, the Geek Feminism Wiki remains a solid, evergreen resource for Code of Conduct creation (as well as all other things inclusion-related). Just as important as Code of Conduct creation is Code of Conduct enforcement. Getting your team trained on how to respond to Code of Conduct violations is the only way to ensure that having a CoC will provide meaningful value to your community. Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner have written a fantastic (and free) code of conduct enforcement book that can be downloaded here.

Who is the Founding Team?

Community begets community. Without a concerted effort, a community, like a company, will naturally attract members that look, think, and act like existing members. It’s no secret that many founders in tech are white, male, and young. If your founding team meets this description, there are still plenty of opportunities to pave the way for a diverse and welcoming community. However, because your organic community will not benefit from the representation of more marginalized groups in tech at the founder level, your community will need to ensure that your desire to build an inclusive, welcoming community is crystal clear to the folks considering joining it. A shining example of this is Slack, founded by Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson. From a 2018 Atlantic article on Slack’s diversity:

These efforts began with the company’s launch in 2014, and have only accelerated. “All of us believe it’s our responsibility,” Julia Grace, Slack’s senior director of infrastructure engineering, told me.

Slack’s intentional approach to diversity and inclusion resulted in not only a more diverse workplace but a more welcoming developer experience, down to the smallest detail. For example, Slack’s docs don’t assume a developer knows what oAuth is, defining it clearly before getting into details around flow and access. Simple details like this may be overlooked by a community of experienced developers, closing off access to a newer developer that may write the next great integration.

Early days are focused on growth and scale, but taking these small steps to invest in the potential of your developer community ensures you’re setting the stage for inclusion and innovation that can take your product to the next level.

In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at the essential areas of community building for mid-stage developer startups.

If you’d like to know when Part 2 of the series is published and stay up to date with new content in our library, make sure to follow us on Twitter @Heavybit.

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