How to Build and Foster a Great Developer Community: Best Practices from the Experts

A well running community strategy syncs the needs of that community like a finely tuned machine

As seen on Forbes.

For developer-driven software companies, community is everything. After all, if your business relies on a rabidly loyal, evangelical developer following to spur viral growth and bottoms-up adoption of your product, you first need to foster and grow that community. In this column, I’ll discuss four ways to build and support a fantastic developer community, sharing what has worked for three enterprise companies with fervent followings, HashiCorp, Snyk, and Demisto.

Many enterprise companies today base their business models on the concept of product-led growth. The idea is to seed free or low-cost versions of products to developers who fall in love with the tools, contribute ideas or code back to the project, encourage other developers to use the tools, and/or convince their bosses to adopt paid enterprise editions. Now more than ever, tech products are bought, not sold. But while product-led growth seems like a simple concept, it is actually incredibly challenging, because first you have to foster a user community and work hard to gain their trust. You can’t simply build a product and just watch product-led growth happen. As Adam FitzGerald, VP of developer relations at HashiCorp recently told me during a panel I hosted at a Founders + Leaders event, “trust is easily squandered and hard to earn.”

Pinpoint the problem(s) your community needs to solve

Whether you are building a community of developers, security experts, or dev-ops pros—and whatever level of technical expertise your users have—it’s critical to first figure out what tangible problems they have. If you build products that help developers or technical users solve their biggest problems, you’ll gain early users’ trust and appreciation. They will then tell their friends about your solution and the community will begin to build. After all, a community doesn’t exist to schill your product, it exists because the members share similar technical challenges they’re trying to solve. For example, Guy Podjarny, co-founder and president of Snyk, started his cloud-native security company in 2015 to help software developers solve a pressing challenge: ensuring their code had no security flaws. Guy and his co-founders spent months asking developers what they would need to make their code secure and they wanted a tool to find and fix security vulnerabilities during the development process, and nothing like that existed. 

“Developers told me they wanted to build security into development and we realized the reason developers hadn’t embraced security products in the past was because these products weren’t designed for them—the industry had really failed in that regard—so we knew if we wanted developers to embrace our product, we would have to build an entirely developer-first company, and so that’s what we did,” Podjarny told me recently during an interview for an episode of my podcast, Founder Real Talk. Today, over 2.2 million developers use Snyk to build secure applications.

Create a sense of togetherness

It might go without saying, but a community is just that. A community is any group of people who come together around a shared interest or purpose. A developer community is no different. Your community should be a playground of kindred spirits, inclusive and supportive, and should serve its members through an open exchange. To foster this type of collaboration and connection, provide multiple platforms where your community can communicate with one another, such as Slack and Discord channels, online forums, meetups, hackathons, and in-person events. The members of any community gain value by being part of something bigger than themselves. 

“Our community of users exists to help one another, and we really just give them places to share information and best practices; we nurture our user community, but we in no way own it; we are more at their service. And in turn, our users help one another become stronger users of Snyk and passionate users spread the word about it,” said Podjarny.

Add value through content creation

One of the best ways to foster early community-building, and to grow it for many years to come, is to create valuable content. Your users will be hungry for any information they can find to better learn to use and master your tools, so make sure to create documentation, technical articles, case studies, blog posts, how-to guides, webinars, and any other content that will help your community derive the most value from your products. This is a time-consuming task that requires hiring technical writers. At HashiCorp, half the company’s developer relations team is devoted exclusively to creating content. 

“Developers are constantly seeking out articles, posts, and tutorials on how to use new technologies, so you have to ensure when they google terms related to your sector, they will discover a plethora of well-written, technical, and approachable content about your platforms,” said FitzGerald. 

Bringing users together in person is also incredibly valuable, especially after over 18 months of social distancing, so consider hosting hackathons or developer conferences where users can share ideas and work on projects together.

Invite contribution

Creating content for your community is just the start. Enterprise companies should also invite members of their communities to contribute their own content back to the group. The more members are active participants, the more they will be engaged with and ultimately evangelize your products. Invite community members to publish on your own forums, share posts about your product on Hacker News, ask questions and post tips on social channels (and interact with them when they do), write blog posts, and share ideas over Slack or Discord. For open source companies, contribution is of course of utmost importance; the more developers who contribute code and connectors to your project, the more your platform grows and flourishes. Open source companies should have several employees on their developer relations teams who work exclusively with contributors, supporting super-contributors as valuable members of the team.

“One thing we did right early on was encourage users of our product to engage with one another on Slack channels; we created an environment where security analysts could chat together and added cool giveaways for participating. And they began sharing so much valuable content, such as the right playbook to use with this type of security incident and so on. By inviting users to participate in our product and how to use it and improve it, we actually did not need to do much outreach to grow our customer base; we had customers coming to us and asking to download our product,” said Slavik Markovich, co-founder and CEO of Demisto, a security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) company acquired by Palo Alto Networks in 2019, during another recent Founder Real Talk interview.

Building a community of developers, dev-ops professionals, or technical users is never easy. It takes commitment, time, and a laser focus on creating a valuable and collaborative space for members. A community is first and foremost a place to share ideas and learn from one another; but by fostering a true community, software companies can organically grow its user base, eventually growing from the ground up throughout the enterprise. 

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