Can I Launch a Developer Community?

I am not a community manager. At least I wasn’t, until I built a community by accident. It began as a small group in NYC a few years back for startup founders and salespeople. Then the small group became 20 global chapters with over 25,000 members.

So I am now a community manager with a community.

One of the common questions I receive from IT leaders is how to improve developer productivity. I tell them they need to build an internal community. This is when they push back and question whether their employees would participate and contribute to the community. They point out that their culture does not encourage sharing and only a handful would ever be involved.

There are organizations that are impossibly siloed and actively discourage open sharing because of their business model. They may have strict client confidentiality and security obligations that make a “default open” culture challenging to embrace.

Those are the rare exceptions however. It is more often the case that an organization believes they are a poor cultural fit for launching a collaborative community because:

  • Previous community based or crowd sourced efforts failed
  • Senior staff do not want to give away their information advantage
  • Employees are not accustomed to sharing openly
  • Company is highly political (or pathological based per Westrum scale)

Each one of these is enough to scare most companies away from truly diving into a community oriented initiative. The fear of repeated failure is both a natural response for individuals and something ingrained in corporate culture which is more apt to assign blame than to acknowledge the value from learning out of failure.

The Westrum Scale of organizational types (source Jez Humble)
The Westrum Scale of organizational types (source Jez Humble)

Most failed attempts at collaborative communities are the result of the objective and the methodology. These initiatives start with overly broad ideas of being more collaborative, to be more social, to build a comprehensive knowledge base, or other ambitious goal. Thus the organization goes all in on a big-bang approach. However just like we have learned from waterfall driven software projects, this hardly leads to success.

People’s needs are more elemental and immediate. At the most basic level people want to be able to get their work done without friction and be recognized for their efforts. The massive social engineering projects never connect with these base needs, so the vision fails to ignite much interest or participation from users that do not see the value of the effort to them. In other words, they are wondering “WIIFM”.

Besides the lack of focus, another challenge is that most of the solutions used to launch a collaborative community tend to not be well suited for fostering collaboration. A community in many ways operates like a market. Any platform needs to address the following:

  • Ease of Use — enabling users to contribute and become productive quickly
  • Community Driven — self-monitoring the community to reduce overhead
  • Canonical — ensuring content is relevant, current, and verifiable
  • Recognition — rewarding and encouraging users to actively contribute
  • Discoverability — making information easy to search and find
  • Trustworthy — leveraging something already familiar to users

For example, chat and messaging systems are great at being easy to use and community driven, but are not as strong at capturing canonical content and finding info. Social workplace apps are good with recognition but hardly evoke much excitement from users that are unfamiliar with the platform and frustrated by the overwhelming user experience.

The other challenge to building a collaborative community are information hoarders. You find this often in highly bureaucratic organizations where groups are siloed, work against each other for resources, and make decisions motivated by politics.

Instead of fighting the culture, you can often use the culture as a means of subverting itself. By incubating the community in an area that would reap the most value from greater sharing and collaboration, the value of the community starts to take hold. With this dose of “inception”, other groups begin to organically adopt the platform as they see value in participating for themselves. Not everyone will get on board, but enough do that the culture begins to shift to one that embraces increased openness and information sharing.

The easiest places to launch such communities are in areas undergoing lots of change. Areas experiencing a lot of growth, a mandate to innovate, or have newly hired leaders are often good starting points. I have seen areas such as cloud migration, open API efforts, or digital transformation initiatives be good starting points. The greater executive visibility and need for agility often provides strong momentum to launch an online community.

Still, many will emphatically state that there is just not a culture of openness and sharing in their company. While this may certainly be true, many organizations are also trying to adopt more of a startup ethos of agility as a means of delivering better customer experiences faster. What makes that ethos work is an open and collaborative culture.

Much like the situation in an information hoarding culture, the key is to identify a use case and group that can create the spark of the community. The right use case can generate excitement and get people involved and engaged contributing content, because they see the immediate benefits of doing so. Recognition and gamification play an important role in maintaining long-term interest as the incentives and rewards encourage more participation, especially for the subject matter experts that feel more at ease with “sharing the goods”.

What about organizations that are truly pathological? It may be a situation where many other things need to change first, including the leadership. However, very few companies are rarely so dysfunctional across the board. There may even be a group willing to go maverick and become the catalyst that initiates wholesale change across the organization.

So can you build a community? I would put it another way and pose the question as can you afford to not build a community? Unless there are structural challenges to the business or the culture is so corrosive to prevent such initiatives to succeed, I would say there is nothing to hold you back.

The imperative to harness the collective wisdom and intelligence of the organization has never been greater. With the cycles of technology and innovation getting faster, why would an organization not use the power of community as a competitive advantage? To get started, read my 50–500–5000 Principle to help you think through how best to start and build your own community.

What‘s been your experience participating in internal company communities? What things worked well versus things that could be improved?

Why is Gbt3fC79ZmMEFUFJ a weak password?

Besides the obvious that it has already been published, some really deep answers here…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.



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