Best Practices for Quickly Scaling an Engaged Data Pro Community
Modern software engineering has always been inseparable from the open-source software communities that shaped the way engineers work today. From the moment Linus Torvalds released the Linux source code into the world in the early 1990s to the democratization of web development through WordPress and the ensuing explosion of web frameworks, software engineering communities have always formed around critical technology advancements and new ways of working.
This was absolutely true for me. Everything that I learned about computers, software and open source, I’ve learned through online communities, peeking under the hood of other people’s code, and remixing and reusing examples from others to build something new. Whether communities exist as virtual discussion forums or in-person technical meetups, software engineering communities are places that enable engineers to learn from one another, build on each other’s work, and find opportunities they would not have access to otherwise.
If you’re hearing everyone around you talking about the power of community and wondering if investing in community is worth it for you or your company – the answer is always yes! I’ve been a part of, built, studied, and scaled communities for more than 15 years, and now serve as the Director of Community at dbt Labs. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Find an Underserved Niche
Communities increase the rate of innovation in an industry or practice. Yet, if you look to one field slightly adjacent to software engineering — analytics — you’ll find that even five years ago, communities for analysts and data engineers were nearly non-existent.
I became a data analyst at GitHub in 2017. I remember struggling to automate repetitive tasks that I and other team members were challenged by. Unfortunately, most of the tools available to us weren’t designed for automation. I yearned for others to share their best practices, but all my coworkers were stuck in the same boat.
Analytics work has long been the domain of largely proprietary business intelligence (BI) software. BI solutions were plentiful, but with little cross compatibility between them. As a result, it was challenging to find other humans who had solved similar problems and difficult to share code and learn from others’ examples. Many analytics teams found themselves largely on their own.
When dbt first emerged as a framework for data analysts, it changed the way analysts like me worked (in the same way that Ruby on Rails did for software developers in 2008). Before long, there was a thriving community around this new way of working – dubbed the practice of analytics engineering – that filled the all-important role of helping analysts learn from one another, build on each other’s work, and together advance their shared practice.
Today, there are more than 30,000 analytics engineering practitioners in the dbt Community Slack group. Over 7,000 people gathered at the annual analytics engineering conference last year to discuss the state of the industry and the latest best practices. More than 6,000 dbt Meetup members across 15 cities and 10 countries gather on a regular basis to share what they’re learning locally, make new connections and connect with opportunities they wouldn’t have found otherwise.
If you’re interested in investing in a community around your own product, look for spaces with low information access. Those areas are often in need of the specific value that communities offer.
Create Value for Others
Ask yourself: what problem are you or your business trying to solve and for whom? Who are the humans (users, customers) you most want to connect with?
And then find out what they need from you.
This isn’t about determining what feature to build next, or what new product to develop – it’s about understanding the humans you want to build a relationship with, and finding ways to create value for them.
What do they most need from you that you can do today? Maybe it’s just a space to gather on a regular basis, so that folks can meet with other like-minded people, find support, and make new connections.
Over the last two and half years, many of us have struggled to hold onto our existing social relationships, let alone build new ones. At dbt Labs, for example, we’ve found that right now one of the most impactful things we can do is create opportunities for folks to build those new connections, especially with looming job market uncertainty.
Investing in the people you are building for will have a multiplicative effect on you and your business over time. By helping folks build new relationships and helping them succeed, you are setting them up for new job opportunities, new projects and collaborations. As folks expand their social reach, so will you – through them.
Meet People Where They Are
A community’s borders aren’t defined by the limits of the platform it lives on. A great community utilizes a variety of tools to help its members be successful. The dbt Community, for instance, lives across Slack, GitHub, Meetup.com, Twitter and many non-dbt specific data interest groups.
Where are folks already spending their time? How can you show up in a way that creates value for folks on those platforms?
Do the humans you want to reach enjoy a good meme on Twitter? Do they stay signed into Slack or Discord because of work? Are they already part of various Meetup groups, and do they look for new social events to go to on a particular platform? Make it easy for folks to connect with you by doing what is already easy for them!
And importantly – what other types of communities are folks already members of? You don’t have to build a community from scratch – very often, creating value in a genuine way is best done by supporting existing local or virtual communities folks are already a part of. Sponsor their conferences or hackathons. Help organize fun activities to do together. Volunteer to help when existing communities need resources. For in-person meet-ups, that might include, say, helping to set up the chairs or carry the pizzas.
Focus on Depth of Engagement and Not Volume
Reddit, GitHub, Stack Overflow, and other mega social platforms attract millions of users. Yet, as much as we need and love those networks, bigger is not always better. The larger and louder a community gets, the more challenging it can feel for someone to parse through the noise and find answers. Five engaged community members working closely together on a problem can be far better, and more efficient, than a thousand.
Smaller communities are popping up all the time, often around emerging technologies that may require new skillsets. This is often how entire industries, new technology, and new roles are born.
Create a Safe and Welcoming Place
If you do choose to launch your own community, focus on making it a safe, helpful and welcoming place (and not only on the number of humans in it).
dbt Labs, as stewards of the dbt Community, work hard to demonstrate the positive behaviors we want to see from others. We assume good faith and work with someone to help them better understand how to live the community values. And we make it clear when something is unacceptable by taking swift corrective action.
Some values we stand by:
- Be authentic and come as your individual self. Let folks know what company affiliations you have up front, but focus on showing up as a human that can add value for others, rather than a representative of your company.
- Show empathy for others’ experiences, backgrounds and situations. Embrace and encourage others’ diverse voices and perspectives.
- Create more value than you extract. Answer hard questions, as well as questions that have nothing to do with what your company does. Participate in a way that moves a discussion or idea forward.
Together, these principles have helped the dbt Community continue to be a safe, welcoming space as it has scaled to tens of thousands of participants. But most importantly, these principles, the boundaries and new territories that the dbt Community explores, are all defined, iterated and shared with the community itself. Community members are an active part in shaping what’s next, giving feedback on what’s broken, and deciding when something needs to change.
And we wouldn’t have it any other way.