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How To Build Developer Communities: Top Advice from the Pros

January 6, 2015
April 2, 2024

On Wednesday, community managers and developer evangelists came together for a CMX Series event devoted entirely to developer evangelism. Developer Evangelism is a specific subset of community building that focuses on creating connections from developers to companies and tools that help them do their work better.

The three speakers – Tim Falls of, Sarah Jane Morris of Mashery, and Andrew Mager of SmartThings – shared their insights on how to build developer community from the ground up.

Here are the key takeaways. You can also listen to the full talks podcast-style and get the slide decks.

Tim Falls of on Hiring Developer Evangelists and Building a Team

tim falls cmx series
Image via Neil Mansilla

Tim first started building developer community four years ago with SendGrid. He shared with the audience his entire story of building the community from scratch.

Tim is adamant that Developer Evangelism is not like other fields. It is a long-term investment that builds long-term loyalty. The value of the Developer Evangelist is that they build relationships with other developers, entrepreneurs, and company representatives.

“That’s the benefit that companies stand to realize,” Tim asserts. “It may not be something you can quantify, but the connections are meaningful and positive.” Tim argues us that Developer Evangelism carries through for months and years into the future.

How to Hire a Developer Evangelist

Before you begin to hire a developer evangelist, Tim Falls recommends asking yourself:

  1. “Is evangelism already happening at our company?” Is someone — a colleague, an intern — already doing the work of a Developer Evangelist?
  2. “Is this right for us? Is this something we need?” The answer might be no. You might need a Solutions Architect or someone in sales or a Business Engineer.

What to Look for in a Great Developer Evangelist

What makes the Developer Evangelist really special and unique is that they are excellent communicators, explained Tim. They can speak and write well, and they can do it through different channels.

Obviously, a Developer Evangelist also must be technically capable. But beyond just being an awesome developer themselves, it’s about being incredibly eager to learn. Often, a great Developer Evangelist is someone who is a seasoned developer, circling back to get to know the community, or is someone right out of college with a background in development, who is ready and eager to learn.

Look for Developer Evangelists who are super active and who are building hacks. They are likely also “blowing up your support line” with questions you might have never even seen.

In summary, a great developer evangelist should have the following strengths and skills:

  • Excellent communication skills, both verbal and written
  • Technical knowledge
  • Eagerness to learn
  • Active within your community already
  • Passionate about building hacks with your product
  • Superior at identifying bugs and other shortcomings and communicating them to your team

How to Build out a Developer Evangelist Team

Create an environment for ambitious people, driven people, self-actualization through the workplace. Once you create that, they’re going to want to come work for your versus the companies who aren’t.

Pro Tips:

  1. Hire slowly. Every person that you hire is going to significantly impact the next person you hire.
  2. Diversity is important. Don’t hire the same people (this is true anywhere). Diversity not just in coding languages, but in age, ethnicity, gender, etc.

“This type of role isn’t one that is going to be many years long. It maxes out at anywhere from 12 to 24 months,” Tim concedes. “But keep in mind: once an evangelist, always an evangelist.”

Sarah-Jane Morris of Mashery on How Developer Communities Differ from Consumer Communities (and How to Build Them Offline)

sarah jane morris cmx series
Image Via Neil Mansilla

Sarah-Jane Morris has been working in software product marketing and community for over 10 years. She’s seen the field grow and change over that time and also has an eagle-eye view of how they differ from other communities.

She took the stage with a strong, clear statement: “Developers don’t like BS.” They have no patience for it. That’s because developer community is “about solutions.” It’s about building things together, closer aligned with a community of practice than a community of any other type.

“She continued by explaining that developers, are “not opening your newsletter or your blog to just check it out. They are solutions-focused. Developers engage in community in an effort to discover tools, exchange knowledge, and solve problems.

For both online and offline community building among developers, you must have:

  • Solid docs
  • Sample apps
  • lightning-fast tech support
  • Forum presence
  • Knowledge gathering and sharing

Hackathons Are Essential

Developer Evangelists are often called upon to participate in hackathons as part of an offline community building strategy, but how do companies know which ones are worth going to? How do they know they’ll be worth their while?

For starters, “Think long and hard about sponsoring if they call it a ‘hack-a-thon,'” Sarah-Jane jokes.

Three major types that are worth pursuing as part of a larger offline strategy:

1. Collegiate Hackathons

There has also been a collegiate hackathon focus for the last 6-7 months. Why is this important? Collegiate hackathons are amazing recruiting tools and the organizers at such hackathons are wide open to trying new things. She recommends checking out for more information.

2. Branded Hackathons

When organizing a branded hackathon, Sarah-Jane offered some useful actionable tips:

  • They include anywhere from 80-300 developers and designers, building apps around specific branded APIs and partners.
  • They include large prizes.
  • They should be managed in such a way that developers can own their work. Developers should own their ideas and code.

3. Independent/Themed Hackathons

  • They include anywhere from 80-300 developers and designers.
  • They are usually brand agnostic with a handful of sponsors and a theme.
  • These events are great for open-minded developers, API adoption, and a fun weekend of building.

Sarah-Jane finished with one final word of advice to those building offline community events for developers: “Make it inclusive! Make women feel welcome, make all ethnicities feel welcome.”

Andrew Mager of SmartThings on Retaining the Developers in Your Community

andrew mager cmx series
Image Via Ben Edwards

Andrew Mager, formerly of SimpleGeo and Spotify, runs Developer Evangelism at SmartThings, which is the open platform for the Internet of Things. Andrew set out to enlighten the crowd on hacker retention.

The Hacker Ethos

In order to engage your developer community, you need to understand how they think about their work. Here is how Andrew describes “The Hacker Ethos”:

  • Logical, inventive, pragmatic
  • Always looking for the next big problem to solve
  • Learning new technologies constantly
  • Testing the limits
  • Independent, sometimes stubborn
  • Day jobs feed their weekend hack ideas
  • Short attention-span
  • More than a developer

“How to Flirt with a Developer Online”

Andrew explained how to find and follow developers online so that you can start building a relationship with them.

  • Add them on Hacker League, ChallengePost,, Lanyrd, etc.
  • Find out what other events they like to attend
  • Find them on Github, Twitter, Dribble, and even LinkedIn
  • Engage with them on a constant basis
  • Develop portals, guides, examples, docs, changelogs, etc.
  • Encourage them to contribute to an open-source project
  • Get their email address and send them monthly newsletters (that are useful and helpful, of course)
  • Invite them to all the events

The best events to attend as a Developer Evangelist, in order:

  1. Hackathons are most engaging: You get hands-on feedback to solve problems and resolve bugs
  2. Meetups that you host: Focus on platform updates and Q&A
  3. Mixers/Drinkups that you host: These should be informal and casual. Bring swag.
  4. Google Hangouts: Host regular video conferences with the community.
  5. Conferences, keynotes, other company’s parties: Deepen your connection with a wide variety of events.

Continue to Deepen Engagement Over Time

It’s not enough to simply meet developers one time or to follow them online. Instead, you should seek to deepen your relationship with them over time by taking their projects and turning them into real product changes. Andrew offered a few ideas to get you started:

  • Turn the hack into a product feature.
  • Invite them to help you build it.
  • Feature community projects on your developer portal or hacker gallery.

How to Incentivize Developers in Your Community

Like all communities, developer communities require incentives for participation. Among developer communities, these are widely recognized as the top five incentives.

  1. Unlimited premium product
  2. Premium support
  3. Alpha/beta access
  4. Swag
  5. Recognition in the community

Achievement Unlocked: Ambassador

When moving from community member to brand ambassador, there are a few key characteristics that you should keep in mind in developing this relationship. This is what that type of position should entail:

  • Spread out ambassadors geographically
  • Pay for their travel to attend events on your behalf
  • Have them build a new hack at every event
  • Have them capture feedback to improve the ecosystem

Together, these three developer community leaders shared a wealth of knowledge about developer evangelism.

January 6, 2015
April 2, 2024

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