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Tech Life

How to Build a Tech Community That Motivates Even the Unpaid

Oct 31st, 2019 4:00pm by
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VMware sponsored this podcast.

At least in the tech industry, the word “community” is teetering somewhere between adage and advantage. As developer experience becomes more of a necessity, does building a community have to be part of your business strategy?

In this episode of The New Stack Makers, we sit down with Jono Bacon, community and collaboration strategy consultant, speaker and author. Our conversation unsurprisingly begins with talking about the emerging role of developer relations, developer advocate or developer evangelist. It is often an external-facing role, and yet acts as the liaison among infrastructure, product and marketing. It’s a role that is still rather a fish out of water, often immeasurable and flopped around from department to department.

How to Build a Tech Community that Motivates Even the Unpaid

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“Companies fail if developer relations is isolated,” Bacon said. Every department in an organization must be part of any community development or advocacy.

Bacon offers three kinds of professional community outreach:

  1. Consumer Model — fans or brand advocates who want to make other fans, like those of Minecraft, Sephora and Harley Davidson.
  2. Champion Model — folks who go the extra mile creating memorable YouTube tutorials and documentation, like Mozilla’s Firefox launch.
  3. Collaborator Model — also known as the Open Source Model, this is further broken down into:
    1. Inner Collaborator Model — project maintainers and collaborators are working on something together, where you need “really open, asynchronous communication and development” and where you as a volunteer want to really feel a stake in the project.
    2. Outer Collaborator Model — where you are building tech on top of a platform like Android and iOS apps and WordPress plug-ins, and you are only worried about an excellent on-boarding and developer experience rather than needing the same sense of community.

Bacon, with a background in creating the Ubuntu open source community, points to open collaborator project success stories like Linux, Kubernetes, and Wikipedia as all sharing the clear ethos, meaning and mission. They are intentional about everybody being welcome. And each has a really simple onboarding experience.

“Human beings tend to react really well to incentives and rewards so always [give] someone something to do to keep their journey moving forward and then [reward] great work and great participation,” Bacon said.

He continued that this isn’t just the number of pull requests that lead to success, but if you are actively being engaging and inclusive.

No doubt the open source community has significantly less diversity and a higher turnover rate than the rest of tech, in part, because, well, most of the roles are unpaid. So, without the all-important extrinsic pay, intrinsic motivators are essential.

“When people feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their work, the level of retention is higher,” Bacon said.

This is why he advocates for a good code of conduct and very visible and actionable project values, including civility, respect and collaboration. But Bacon says it’s super important to focus on the open source leadership, a.k.a. the project maintainers, to not only enforce a code of conduct but to have representation in governance and events. He continued that it’s essential “to be able to have challenging discussions in a respectful and dignified way.”

Another challenge is that most of open source is remote work. Bacon offers ways to optimize the necessary online side of any community. Whether internal or external, it needs to reach both kinds of memory:

  • Short-term memory — like Slack, which is great for stream of consciousness and water cooler chat.
  • Long-term memory — like forums, communication that is a bit more formal, easier to follow a chain of topics, and machine searchable.

Intrinsic motivators are the ones that stick, especially in a mostly unpaid volunteer community like open source. This starts with strong values of validation and gratitude, but also feeling like you’ve achieved something. This means leadership needs to encourage and celebrate short-term goals and shorter release cycles. Again, onboarding is essential — you need to get people to that first pull request and fast.

Extrinsic motivation can be used to make people feel a part of a community, like t-shirts (or the more gender-neutral socks) and mugs. Handwritten notes are very welcome. But Bacon warns, since extrinsic motivation dries up faster, you should stick to rewarding only at notable milestones.

Bacon’s newest book People Powered: How communities can supercharge your business, brand, and teams offers a higher-level alternative to his first book The Art of Community, examining:

  1. Why both internal and external communities can be powerful.
  2. How to build a community strategy.
  3. How to integrate that community into your business, including tracking success, maturity models, and hiring and training employees to support the community.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash.

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