Community as a Practice: Trajectory and Trends

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Veteran community experts discuss the changing community landscape.

Patrick Woods
CEO & Co-founder
Mary Thengvall
Director, Developer Relations
Jono Bacon
Community Consultant
Sam Ramji
Chief Strategy Officer

The panel discusses why businesses are increasingly investing resources in community and driving community growth. From a community's impact on brand perception to evolving product development.

They then get into the impact of COVID-19 on the profession and how it has forced us to re-think how DevRel and community folks spend their time, and has promoted innovation in activities like events.

Finally, we cover the evolving perception of how community and DevRel are driving business impact and tips for organizations exploring creating their own communities.

Patrick Woods: All right. Welcome, everyone, to our session on Community As A Practice, defining the trajectory and trends that will define the coming decades, centuries, maybe millennia of community building. I personally am very excited to have this group assembled today. These are some of the deepest thinkers and kindest people in the community space, and so I'm eager to jump in and get their ideas or advice or insights, their jokes, and maybe a little smack talk, perhaps some D&D references along the way.

Patrick Woods: You're in for quite a variety show of community energy today, so with that, I'll let the panelists go through and introduce themselves. I'd love each of you to share a little bit about who you are, what you're working on, and tell us, ultimately, why do you care about this? Why is community a thing that keeps you going? Mary, you want to kick us off?

Mary Thengvall: Sure thing. My name is Mary Thengvall. I'm the Director of Developer Relations at a company called Camunda. We do process automation and orchestration, and I've been involved in community and developer relations in the tech space for 15-ish years now. I actually got started in journalism and storytelling and loved the storytelling aspect of feature writing and things like that, but had the joy of graduating from college right when all of the editorial staff was being laid off at newspapers. Not great timing, but it kind of kickstarted my career in community because I joined O'Reilly Media. Wound up on their Public Relations Department and was writing press releases about books, and that got me connected with a lot of our community members, the authors, the speakers at our conferences, Jono, various people throughout the community. It really got me to see the stories that could be told through developer relations and community in technology.

Mary Thengvall: I've been really passionate these last few years about providing resources, creating resources, largely because there weren't resources when I was getting started. I had the pleasure of being the publicist for Art of Community back in the day, but that was my very first introduction to any sort of resources around community building or anything like that for tech. That's really what I've been involved in both as a passion project while I'm working full time, and I had a couple of years where I was doing that full-time consulting and creating resources about developer relations. That's been the exciting thing for me these last few years is just really seeing how much this industry has grow, where we've gone, and the impact we've been able to have.

Patrick Woods: Cool. Thank you, Mary. Sam?

Sam Ramji: Let's see, I've been a programmer off and on a long time. Graduated in '94 and was a programmer immediately after that in the dot-com rush. I didn't really understand sort of the community or even the business aspect of software until like the 2000's, and I got this weird call one day. I was working in the Venture Capital Team at Microsoft in like 2004, 2005, and I started seeing everyone was building software as a service applications. They were all using Linux Apache, MySQL, and PHP. I was like, "Wow, what's this about?" I had been doing some Java programming for some years, and I started realizing, "Oh, open source is a thing. This is actually a really big deal." It is, to use a Baconism, it is people-powered.

Sam Ramji: This whole sense that there is a semi-organized set of people who are super smart, super creative, all working in their enlightened self-interest to pull stuff together, it was just fascinating to me. I ended up doing open source for Microsoft in the 2000's, and I got more and more interested in programmability of the world, APIs, cloud infrastructure came along. I got a chance to work at Google in Kubernetes and leading DevRel there, so for me, I think that there's a change in the world where we're starting to put more and more emphasis on people as individual humans and creators, and then saying, "How do we elevate them?"

Sam Ramji: We had all of this stuff about go-to-market. Okay, you got to hire your head of sales, you got to hire your head of revenue, your head of marketing. What about go-to-community? What about focusing on the people who actually use the things that you're building to make the world more interesting? That for me is kind of fascinating, and yeah, so that's my belief is that community management is the new product management. It's how you listen to what people actually want and figure out, how do you get in a co-creative positive sum game and make things better for them?

Patrick Woods: I love that idea of people using your thing to build a better world, to make the world more interesting. That's really special. Jono, I want to round out the-

Jono Bacon: Yeah.

Patrick Woods: ... the rear of the train here.

Jono Bacon: Man, this is like going on stage after The Beatles and Led Zeppelin have just played. My name is Jono Bacon. I just love everything to do with communities, every single bit of it. I've been kind of doing this now for about 22, 23 years. Used to lead community at Canonical, GitHub, and XPRIZE. These days, I'm a consultant and I work with all kinds of different companies from earlier stage C-stage startups through the bigger organizations like Airbnb, Intel, Microsoft, various others. More recently, I've been kind of building out group training programs as well because the thing that I'm passionate about is really trying to weave together the recipe for how you do this in communities, and all the wonderful mistakes and failures along the way.

Jono Bacon: The thing that I'm passionate about, and this is going to sound like a horrible cliché, but it's genuinely true, is I remember when I first discovered Linux in 1998. I bought a book, I actually still have it, it's right there on my bookshelf about Slackware. The first chapter talked about people all over the world coming together to build this thing. Back then, certainly where I grew up in the UK, the internet was not very common in people's houses. It was mainly a university thing. We had to pay to get online every minute. It wasn't like free local calls like in the U.S., but it just really did set off a light bulb in my head around, "How does this work?"

Jono Bacon: To me, what's so fascinating about it is, to me, network is a community of minds that glue together and every one of those minds has got time, talent, experience, that work well, things that do not work well. When we get all of that out of our heads into a reasonable form, the world is just objectively made a better place. That to me is fascinating, and it's like an eternal jigsaw puzzle where your dog has always eaten three or four of the pieces and we're trying to figure out where the pieces are. I just love learning from everybody and I think Mary and Sam and you, Patrick, there's so much to learn and it's super fun, so...

Patrick Woods: Yeah, the eternal jigsaw puzzle that your dog's always eating a few pieces, that's a metaphor that's going to stick with me. When we sort of... To kick us off, when we started Orbit a couple of years ago, we talked to a lot of investors about the idea and building a tool for this space. One of the things that we heard a lot from investors was, "Cool, like community developer relations. Those are fairly niche fields. We're not going to invest in this business because this seems like a cost center. It's like a side show. It's a nice-to-have. It's a vitamin, it's not medicine." Sort of things like that.

Patrick Woods: Fast forward to today when I talk to investors, the number one question they ask is, "Where do I get more community managers? Where do I find more developer advocates? Do you have a secret? Can you post this job in the Orbit community? Can you email your customers?" It's been two years, but the vibe in the market and especially with like the capital allocators has like changed immensely. I'm wondering from y'all's perspective, some of you are companies, some of you are consultants, have you seen this inflection point? If so, what's changed and why now> Why the past couple of years?

Mary Thengvall: I'll start with that one. For me, I've definitely seen the inflection point. I run a weekly newsletter, Deborah Weekly, and I have a job board that basically any job that pops up that we happen to see during the week, we grab that lik, we throw it on the board, don't really filter through it other than to make sure that the URL still works. Just the sheer number of job postings that are there has grown exponentially. I've got a post about it, I think, from last year. I checked last week and we're now at a point where we scrub anything that's been longer than six months that's been in our list, even if it's still open, and there's 720 jobs up there right now, which is just ludicrous to me. I think a big part of it is for the last five years, seven years, this whole every company's a software company. Developers are the new kingmakers.

Mary Thengvall: All of these things have been growing in force, growing in strength, and so now that people are finally starting to realize, "Oh, wait, developers are driving decisions," developers are the ones that we actually need to connect with. Then, you add on top just the sheer number of new startups that there are on a daily basis, let alone monthly/yearly basis that are tax-centric, developer-centric trying to reach developers, people are finally starting to wake up to the idea that, "Oh, we need people who know how to reach these people."

Mary Thengvall: Well, we know people who have these relationships already. We need people who already know how to communicate in a way and have those authentic relationships in a way that actually attracts people to our software and make sure that they have a good experience with what we're putting out there in the world. Now that people are finally realizing it, there's a huge lack of those of us who are doing it.

Patrick Woods: Yeah, you mentioned that, so my number one answer when they ask me that question is like, "Go post on Mary's." You're like, "Subscribe to Mary's newsletter, sponsor it. That's the best way to do it." In fact, I think when we were raising our seed round a few years ago, a couple years ago, I think we had some metric around growth of job postings on your job board as like proof that the industry was expanding, so-

Mary Thengvall: Yes, yes-

Patrick Woods: ... it's been-

Mary Thengvall: ... absolutely.

Patrick Woods: ... really fun to watch that. Sam, you were going to chime in there?

Sam Ramji: It just... You know, I think Mary's answer is super eloquent. I have nothing to add to it in the core of community management. I'll just add kind of the market's measurement. I moved into the database market about two and a half years ago. I joined DataStax, which is a company that powers Apache Cassandra along with Apache Pulsar. Apache Cassandra, Apache Pulsar, they start our as being open source technologies. Software's eating the world and software's getting powered by data, so like it's kind of open source and community developers all the way down. The value of the database market is about a hundred billion dollars in annual spend a year, a hundred billion.

Sam Ramji: When the money managers start to see that and then they start to see, "How do we value it?", very recently about two months ago, a notable industry analyst started using community growth as measured by community members on LinkedIn and GitHub, sort of stars as a leading indicator of whether or not a particular technology was going to be popular and whether it was going to be able to really be huge. This all sits underneath like HashiCorp's extraordinary valuation where you look at Snowflake like 50X valuation at one point.

Sam Ramji: When HashiCorp went out, and Snowflake is not open source, not community-oriented, it's sort of a eating a market, everybody thought, "My gosh, that's the most amazing thing ever." HashiCorp went out, totally community-centric, totally open source, also a 50X valuation. Now that that's becoming proved mainstream models, we're just getting started with how popular community management's going to be. Now, it's obvious to way more people than those of us on the call who've been here for years.

Jono Bacon: You know, one other thing I think that this is not just to do with developers and technology communities, but I think part of the reason why we're seeing this growth, because I think we're seeing it outside of tech as well, is that I think the psychological relationship between consumers and brands is changing. If you think about it 20 years ago, if you bought a product from a company and you had a problem with it, you'd call their 1-800 number or something along those lines. Then, as the internet started becoming more and more prevalent, brands started engaging with their customers through email and their website.

Jono Bacon: Now, I'm going to sound like an old man now, but young people are growing up with Instagram and Twitter, and for all the many good and bad reasons that that is a thing, it's created a much more interactive relationship, I think, between people and brands and celebrities and other things like that. I think people expect a more engaging relationship, and I think that's triggering part of the reason why there is an appetite for this kind of thing as well.

Sam Ramji: Yeah, we're kind of personifying companies in a way that we never did before-

Jono Bacon: Right.

Sam Ramji: ... so your community management all of a sudden becomes the personality of your company.

Jono Bacon: Yeah.

Mary Thengvall: Yeah, and I think that goes all the way down to tech companies, but you look at the Twitter profile for KFC and they follow herbs and spices and like the things like that-

Jono Bacon: I didn't know that.

Mary Thengvall: ... where there's... Oh, it's fantastic, it's-

Patrick Woods: It's like-

Mary Thengvall: ... fantastic.

Patrick Woods: ... maybe seven Herbs, I think, like-

Mary Thengvall: Exactly.

Patrick Woods: ... seven people named Herb.

Mary Thengvall: You have seven Herbs and then I believe it's The Spice Girls, and it's stuff like that where people are putting these Easter eggs to find and fully expecting that someone's going to find them, but they're doing it to engage with their audience in a different way that like, how is KFC posting or following seven herbs and spices going to drive more people going to KFC? I don't know, but it sticks in your brain and people know it, and the times when brands can do things that stick in your brain and make you go, "Huh, that's clever," the better off they are, the more likely they are for somebody to come back to them later on down the road. It's a big part of why I've said that the role of developer relations isn't necessarily to get people to use our product, it's to find the right solution for them.

Mary Thengvall: If we're open and honest and authentic and someone comes along and says, "Hey, I need a product that does X, Y, and Z, and our product isn't capable of doing that, I'm not going to lie to them. I'm going to say, "We can't do that right now. It's on our backlog. Don't know when it's going to happen, but I do know some resources that might be able to help you." Then, they're going to remember that interaction and come back to us down the road when we do have a problem that they can solve because we built that relationship, and so it's this... It's such a different way of connecting with people and being there and being available. It sticks in people's minds and makes us memorable in ways that we haven't really seen in traditional marketing and sales in the past.

Sam Ramji: Well, I love what you said, too, because it also solves part of the problem of product and engineering management. The biggest problem usually in building a good thing is like, what do people want? When you create that kind of intimacy where somebody is maybe not even paying you, they're not giving you the dollar vote, but they're giving you something more valuable, which is their attention and their heartfelt emotion, you get enough of those. you're like, "Well, we got to change the backlog. This has got to move up." All of a sudden you start to bring more science of utilization. What do the users actually want back into product and engineering?

Sam Ramji: I think as we create a more permeable boundary instead of having this ivory tower mentality where, "Oh, we hire the smartest people, they know what you want," almost like a Mad Men era of mass communication, instead into this much more servant leadership sort of humble co-creation idea where you have mass personalization. You're really actively listening to what people need and, of course, you're going to be a more valuable company if you deliver on that.

Patrick Woods: You all have been thinking about this space for a long time. You've probably seen a lot of trends come and go, a lot of patterns come and go, a lot of things. You've probably seen a lot of things that don't work, but I'm curious, on the more positive side of that framing, are there any recent developments in the community space, the DevRel space, anything new that you're seeing that as we think about the next five to 10 years that seems really interesting or exciting or meaningful for the practice?

Jono Bacon: One thing I would say there, obviously, COVID has had a devastating impact on many people around the world, but I think one thing that has shaken out of COVID that I think has been good for our space is a lot more creativity when it comes to events. Before COVID, it was always the same thing. It was a webinar or it was an online meetup or something along those lines, and it was just so predictable and boring for so many people.

Jono Bacon: I think the area where I think there's been some complacency with some DevRel and community managers is, "Oh, if this person comes to my one-hour session that's online, because I'm putting all this value together, therefore I'm doing them a favor." My view has always kind of been the opposite about, which is if you're asking for an hour of somebody's time, Sam, you touched on this fact, the importance of somebody's attention-

Sam Ramji: Yeah.

Jono Bacon: ... if you're asking for an hour of somebody's time, that's a massive, massive ask, and if somebody shows up and it's not immediately engaging within a few minutes, then immediately they're going to be into their email and Facebook and their League of Legends or whatever they're into.

Jono Bacon: I love that we're seeing this creativity around events, and I think what's also been interesting as well has been the corollary between online events and YouTube. A lot of professional YouTubers, they will say if you can't capture a certain proportion of your audience within a minute, you've lost them. That's one of the reasons why they like all this fast editing and videos are very deliberately designed in a certain way. I think this is overall a good thing, and I think we kind of have to get stuck inside for that to happen. I think we have to get to a point where we're all in position of like, "Not another bloody Zoom call and another webinar." Everybody got so sick of it that we started then coming up with really interesting, creative ideas, so I think that's been a really positive thing in my mind.

Mary Thengvall: I'll add onto that a little bit. It was interesting for me at the very beginning of COVID because I had just joined Camunda in December the year prior, so I had been there three months. Hadn't been to a conference booth yet, hadn't sponsored a conference yet because that's not conference season, and then everything shut down. For me, travel has always been a component. You can sponsor booths, you can go speak at conferences, but it's not all of what we do, and it's certainly not the primary focus because I have people on my team who don't enjoy speaking publicly. I have people on my team who don't want to travel for a variety of reasons, but the assumption for a very long time, I think, has been well, "DevRel, that's, that's what you do. You travel, you speak at conferences, you get conference leads, you come home, you prep your next talk, you go out again." That's it.

Mary Thengvall: Jess West put out a great blog post toward the beginning of COVID called Back to Basics: How to DevRel Without Travel, and it was this idea of like... There's great ideas in there, but she also addressed the issue of we have an image problem that people assume this is what we do. I started facing this at Camunda to a certain extent with people who didn't really know what DevRel was and what all we were about except that they knew that some of the team members traveled. They started saying, "Oh, well, you probably have a lot of time on your hands now, so are there things that like I can pass your way? Or things like projects we can do-

Patrick Woods: Oh-

Mary Thengvall: ... "together?" I'm sitting there going, "No, this is to me the lack of travel means I actually have my team present and here for a more significant amount of time. We're not spending so much time traveling to conferences. We're not spending time on planes or prepping new talks or things like that. We have an opportunity to try a lot of different experiments in a very short amount of time that we might not have had an opportunity to do before."

Mary Thengvall: That's been, I think, revolutionary for a lot of teams with, "Oh, well, if everybody's grounded, unfortunately, for unfortunate reasons we're grounded, but if everyone's grounded, we can try four different experiments this month and then decide next month which ones of those we want to pursue and move forward with and how to actually connect with our community members online in different ways." For us, with a lot of our Community Summit, CamundaCon, things like that, we've been able to reach people that hadn't been able to travel to in-person events before.

Mary Thengvall: We had a meetup group reach out to one of our co-founders from Iraq and say, "Hey, would you be willing to do a virtual meetup about Camunda?" He was like, "I think I can do... I wouldn't travel there in person right now, but I think... I mean, it's online. These are people we would never be able to interact with in person. Let me go ahead and do this online virtual event." It's been cool to see other people come out of the woodwork and realize, "Oh, you're here. I can get access to you and talk to you in different ways at different times that I wouldn't have been able to do before."

Mary Thengvall: Now, as in-person events are starting to come back, well, we're trying to figure out, "How do we do hybrid events that we don't lose those people who are suddenly connecting with us more because we've been more accessible than we have in the past?" That's not necessarily a trend, but I think an interesting problem that some of us are going to have to figure out. How do we solve so that don't suddenly disappear on this community members that we've been engaging with over these last few years?

Sam Ramji: Super powerful. There's this movement to make better use of people's attention and kind of the unbundling of what used to be these giant lumpy events, like one hour. We used to be like, "Hey, you got to come to our training for a day." Not only is it eight hours, but you got to get time off from work. There's a lot of things that we just all kind of accepted this is the way you do things that were really kind of anti-diverse and also not very good for people's time. One thing that we found at DataStax was going from an eight-hour model of training to asking ourselves really hard like, "What do people need to be able to do differently in the next day?" We figured out we could do that training in about two and a half hours.

Sam Ramji: Now, that required us to be thinking really radically different, incorporate assessments in the middle of it, gamify it, and make our product finer grained. It wasn't like, "Oh my God, here's the installation process." We're having to gamify the front end experience of pretty much every user experience because we're all playing League of Legends and we're communicating on Discord. Why shouldn't my software feel a little bit more like that? I'm on a quest. If yo go to Twilio, you can sing up for a TwilioQuest. They've taken that all the way. You can have a little 8-bit character, and then connecting on this very fine-grained fashion.

Sam Ramji: I'm an introvert. When I think about asking somebody a question at a conference, and I'm 50, I've been around for a while, my heart rate still hits 140 before I go to the microphone. It freaks me out, but I can type a question into Discord and I don't feel bad at all and somebody else can answer that. This idea of increasing inclusion through finer-grained digital experiences, to me that is a trend and I hope that we triple down on it.

Patrick Woods: Hmm. Thinking about... We've talked about some trends, some future-looking things. I want to think now about the application of community as a discipline inside of businesses. We've got hundreds of folks in attendance and they're all mostly from companies. Can you think of an example of when a company's community or community team or DevRel team had a big impact internally inside the company? They had impact in other areas of the business that made the whole company say, "Whoa, that's a cool thing?" I'd love to hear any examples of that you all have seen or experienced or made real.

Sam Ramji: I think it's kind of like where to start. You've asked like the question with the most possible answers and we're all like, "Where do I begin?" I had the opportunity-

Sam Ramji: ... just real briefly, I had the opportunity to lead DevRel at Google for a while. Obviously, Google was in a lot of different developer communities, whether it's Android and phone, or whether it's cloud or... Kubernetes was a pretty fascinating phenomenon, and when you look at something that changed the industry, I look at someone that... Most people would say, though, that there's a great example of DevRel and dev advocate in Kelsey Hightower. Now, Kelsey came into the job as somebody who was already really competent in his space, and also demonstrated a warmth and inclusion, a leadership, a willingness to educate.

Sam Ramji: I think you can now look at Kubernetes as something that ended up taking over Google. It was a pirate ship inside the company launched by like Joe Beda and Craig McLuckie and Eric Brewer. Now, like every major cloud and all the non-major clouds all have a Kubernetes infrastructure. You kind of look at, "What was the snowball effect led by what Kelsey was doing to help increase the popularity outside the company and inside the company?" It moved allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars inside Google and all the other cloud providers, and then it's changed the industry, so that's probably the best example I can think of, but there are so many more. Programming frameworks, Angular 2, Kotlin, like just... Anyway. The mind boggles. How can we tell the story of the last 20 years without having like an epic list of game-changing DevRel folks?

Jono Bacon: You know, kind of on that note, I've seen this happen a ton of times with my clients and students where the work and the efforts within not just a DevRel team in the technical space, but also just community management teams in the non-tech space has influenced significantly the tonality and the approach that other teams have taken to their customers. There's been many examples where, and I know we've all seen this, where community is kind of this weird unknown thing inside of a business. Nobody really understands it outside of the person or the people involved in running the team, and there has to be a lot of internal education, not in a one-way approach, just a more of a conversation around what this is, how it works, what it means.

Jono Bacon: Then, I think in many cases, when people see the fruits of that and they realize that their customers, their users, their developers feel a great sense of kind of kindred spirit with the organization than just a pure customer-company relationship, that then often unlocks, "Well, how do we bring some of that inside the company?" That's where you get better values, programs, and inclusion programs inside the business, but also I've seen it impact sales teams a ton of times where I've seen a number of cases where CEOs have gone to the head of a sales team and said, "You need to act more like the community team than you're doing right now because you may be getting the sale, but it's not building the long-term value for our customers." They get the sale, but then it doesn't build that relationship.

Jono Bacon: The tricky thing with this, which I think is always the challenge with community in general, is it's hard to quantify that in a concrete manner. A lot of people have tried to define the ROI of community and I think it's like trying to build a hoverboard. It will ultimately never actually happen because half the problem is always going to be out of scope. You can't measure the people elements of the community experience. You can't put them into a spreadsheet, and that I see happening all of the time in companies and organizations that we work with.

Patrick Woods: Hmm.

Mary Thengvall: Yeah, I agree, and I think my favorite analogy around that, there's a blog post from years ago that was talking about how to prove the value of this, and I quote it in my book and it's something I refer back to all the time, but it's this idea of with your best friend, you don't sit there and go, "Hey, it's taken us five coffee dates and 10 dinners and three trips, but we're finally at a place where I'm comfortable calling you my best friend. Let's make this official." Right? Like-

Jono Bacon: I love that.

Mary Thengvall: ... "It costs me this much money, but we're here, right?" It's that idea of that relationship happens. You answered a question on a forum. You reach out and say, "Hey, I'm happy to hop on a quick call." You bump into someone at a conference and you invite them to join your team at dinner.

Mary Thengvall: It's those real getting to know each other relationship-building moments that I think can make such a huge difference. One of the bigger things that I've been emphasizing the last number of years, I guess, that I can probably trace all the way back to my initial community role is this idea of making sure that you're making those introductions internally. The teams that I've seen that have not done well, but are very confused when they're let go, tend to be people who have fantastic relationships with outside community members, with their users, but they don't communicate any of that internally. There's people internally you go, "I don't really know what you're doing or how you're doing it. What's the value? Why are you doing all of these things? I don't see any results from it."

Mary Thengvall: If you can take those relationships and say, "Hey, I met Sam at this conference, and I think he would write a fantastic blog post talking about what he's doing with our product. Can I introduce you to the marketing team? Would you be willing to talk to them? They're willing to ghostwrite a blog post for you. You can do a video instead, but is that something you're interested in?" Then, if I make that handoff to marketing and that happens and that happens, say, 10 times over a span of three months, marketing's suddenly going to go, "Holy crap. Okay, we need to be going back to DevRel more often because they have all the connections to the community members because those blog posts are going to get far better traffic, far more attention than blog posts that we're writing ourselves."

Mary Thengvall: This idea of DevRel qualified leads, that I can make handoffs to marketing for content. I can make handoffs to the hiring team, to the recruiting team for engineers who might be a really good fit and they're coming from our community. I can make handoffs to the product team for someone who's figured out bugs and things like that. The more of those handoffs that you make, the more of those leads you identify, the more likely it is that if there happens to be budget cuts at your company and DevRel seems to be on the chopping block, other teams are going to start speaking up on your behalf and go, "No, no, no, no, no, you can't get rid of them because if you do, we're going to have the half that we do on the blog." Or, "Our hiring pipeline isn't getting nearly as strong, or we're not going to have the feedback or the roadmap that we desperately need."

Mary Thengvall: So much of the relationships that we're building with the external people, we need to be communicating that internally and making it very clear what that value is, why we're building that relationship, how we're building that relationship, and then how it can benefit the rest of the company as well.

Sam Ramji: It is so well said, and I think we are at this moment where we're beginning to professionalize DevRel. Mary just very easily mentioned MQLs, marketing qualified leads, and DevRel qualified leads. As we help each other professionalize the system, much like Orbit is doing with Orbit Model, I think borrowing some of the affordances of business and reflecting them into what we know is about quality, because a DevRel qualified lead and a marketing qualified lead, it's not just a number. The conversion and the likelihood of utility and adoption and the reduction of churn in a DevRel qualified lead is going to be very different.

Sam Ramji: At DataStax, we have a MQL coming from like our ads in pipeline. Then, we have PQLs, product qualified leads, that are coming in from DevRel, so it's exactly that, and we can see a very different contribution to the business, the adoption of the SaaS infrastructure, and kind of the level of feedback and interactivity we've got. Let's all kind of raise them a flag with each other to say, "We have to convert this from something that we all just kind of get because we're community professionals, into something that we can easily translate. Where's the MBA and community management? What are the standard dashboards?" I think we can create that and make better businesses and make our community of community managers a lot happier and more successful.

Sam Ramji: Then, they can explain what they're doing in ways that are just as mathematical as the person doing programmatic marketing of the person doing demand gen for sales

Sam Ramji: So let's all kind of raise them all flag wit each other to say, like, we have to convert this from a, something that we all just kind of get, because we're community professionals into something that we can easily translate, right? Where's the, where's the MBA and community management, right? What are the standard dashboards? I think we can create that and make better businesses and make our community of community managers a lot happier and more successful because then they can explain what they're doing in ways that are just as mathematical as the person doing programmatic marketing or the person doing demand gen for sales.

Jono Bacon: You know-

Mary Thengvall: And-

Mary Thengvall: I was just going to say the more that we can tie it back to the terms that the rest of the business already understands, the better off we're going to be because then you don't have to spend so much time explaining, "Okay, so this term means this thing, and now I need you to remember this thing as well because that ties back to X, Y, and Z, and the terminology, DevRel qualified leads, started off as warm handoffs, which for those of you who have read my book, you're probably familiar with that terminology.

Mary Thengvall: I was at a client's doing an in-person workshop and talking through this idea of warm handoffs, and the head of the team looked at me and said, "Love the idea, but I can't take a metric called warm handoffs to my board."

Patrick Woods: Yeah.

Mary Thengvall: "They're not going to understand what it is." I was like, "Well, here's the the thing, I mean, they're mainly qualified leads. You could just say, 'DevRel qualified leads.'" He goes, Yes, that I can do," and-

Sam Ramji: That's Mary rolling in 20 right there.

Mary Thengvall: ... right? Right. Where I didn't roll a 20 was my book had literally gone to the publisher, or not even to the publisher, to print, the day before, so I called up my editor and was like, "Hi, can I make a fairly substantial in these very... It'll just be a find and replace, but please, can we do this?" She was like, "No, no." "Okay, thanks. It was worth a try."

Jono Bacon: Yeah. You know, I think all of this kind of zones in on, I remember about four or five years ago, I think it was, I went to this event in San Francisco and it was full of kind of CEOs, founders, VCs, and I knew some people there. I met a bunch of new people there that evening, and what I was disappointed, but not particularly surprised to hear from a number of these leaders was there was kind of a bit of a stank around the idea of community management. There were people who had had bad experiences with community managers, and when I asked them about it, it was always the same thing. It was did not doubt the capabilities of the qualifications of the people involved, but A, we didn't see results, and B, it didn't interface with the rest of the company, which is everything that I think everybody's talking about here.

Jono Bacon: I think it's really important, and Mary talked about people who go into companies and they don't necessarily interface with the team. I think that's so important as well, like it's... I think there is a natural intuition around this stuff that sits in a lot of people who'll be watching this or who do this kind of work that it's completely nonobvious to other people. I think it's important that we have to translate that there are core metrics in businesses. There's dollars, there's dollars, there's all of these different pieces we have to interface what we're doing with it. Otherwise, it doesn't fit in no matter how good it is, so-

Sam Ramji: Yeah, right. We... Insularity is such a risk for us, and you can always find insularity in a community when they define the terms in terms of the term.

Jono Bacon: Right.

Sam Ramji: When I was starting to try to figure out how to explain open source to Microsoft, I was new to open source and people were like... I was like, "Well, it's just so open source-y." I'm like, "Oh my gosh, I cannot tell Bill Gates we should do it because it's so open source-y. It doesn't make any sense." If we say, "Well, why should we do community management?" Well, because it's the community, so if you ever find yourself saying this, do better. Reach out to someone who's-

Jono Bacon: Yeah.

Sam Ramji: ... working on this, too, and say like, "How do we help each other?" You don't have to copy what Jono's saying or Mary is saying or Patrick's saying or I'm saying, but help each other just try to be culture brokers.

Sam Ramji: This is a term Allison Randal offered me when I was trying to do this art of brokering open source into Microsoft. She said, "Look, culture brokering means you understand culture A super well, and you can explain them on their own basis. Culture B you understand really well. You can explain them on their own basis, but you're really part of culture C. You have your own pattern language, and the ability to translate the two to each other." Engaging Allison Randal's inspiration of culture brokering, let's team up together to find people that you can work with to increase the precision of our language and the accessibility. Let's not be insular.

Patrick Woods: Hmm. That's rich, that's super rich, everyone. I know we're coming up on time, but I want to run through sort of like a semi-lightning round here, so let's see if we can just throw out some ideas and just crank through some like practical guides and steps and ideas here at the end of the conversation here. Let's say I'm an early stage founder. I've got a few hundred people using my product. I don't come from community or DevRel, but I want to like boot up a community around this early usage of my product. What's the one piece of advice you would give me if I wanted to start building a community?

Mary Thengvall: I'll go first. The biggest thing I always tell everybody is don't start your own. If you've got a... Unless it's a very unique, niche thing that no one has ever done before, there are already people out there talking about the concept, and you want to go find them where they are because if you come on and no one knows who you are and you have a great forum, your forum can be fantastic. The onboarding, the forum can be great. Your product can be great, and you're unlikely to find people to join you because they don't know who you are yet.

Mary Thengvall: If you go out there and actually engage with them where they are, ask them questions, offer feedback, engage with the community that already exists, whether that's Stack Overflow or Reddit or other Slack or Discord forums and communities and things, then you'll start to build up and figure out who those top community members are and how you could say, "Hey, we're thinking about starting a community just for this topic. Would you be interested in joining us?" They'll start to pull other people along with them.

Patrick Woods: Sam, I think you moved first.

Sam Ramji: It's like a buzzer.

Patrick Woods: It's about a rematch, but go ahead, Sam.

Sam Ramji: I learned this from Firebase. I inherited the Firebase team. They were already radically successful without me and continued to be without me. Everybody works in developer support. Now, you could change the name for your community and your user. If you have the privilege of being the founder of an early stage company that only has a couple of hundred community members, you have an opportunity to install a core belief in your culture, which is that every employee in your company, including you, works in community support.

Sam Ramji: Eliot Horowitz, founder of MongoDB, still has the company record for shortest time to answer complex questions about Mongo in Stack Overflow. He was writing the code, he was CTO, he's doing documentation, and like he's answering those questions. When you install those kinds of beliefs like James Tamplin and Andrew Lee did at Firebase, you will have something that is inverted by default an inside out company. If you can do that and not then have to hire somebody like me or Mary or Jono long after the ship has sailed and you're trying to tack on community into your company, like get it right from the beginning. Everybody works in developer support.

Jono Bacon: The approach that I would recommend to that example of an early stage company is don't build a community until you've got some existing traction, and what I mean by that to give very practical guidance here, first of all, identify your audience and what their pain point is. People buy more painkillers than vitamins, so identify that pain point, figure out a crisp way of resolving it in a way that you can scale out. I think a great way to do this is technical workshops. It can be eBooks. It can be demos. Something where somebody goes to your website, they sign up for something. They pop in their first name and email address, which people is a low-friction way to gather a connection to somebody. Then, the key thing is to deliver outstanding technical content via email.

Jono Bacon: Don't send them to blog posts. Make sure your email is completely unbranded. It comes from a human being. It can still be automated. No more than one email a week. I find that you'll get double the open-and-click rates with those kinds of emails. Then, what happens is by the time they get to email four or five, they've already experienced a lot of value. The pain point has been resolved. The psychological pattern of reciprocity is going to really start setting in. Then, at that point, is when you bring them into your community.

Jono Bacon: I would disagree slightly with Mary because I think the crux of what you were saying, Mary, I completely agree with, which is it's much easier to build a community in a place that exists elsewhere. My only concern about that is just transitioning people from one community to another, you always lose a ton of people. I think if that's going to be a plan to stay there, stay in Stack Overflow, for example, I would a hundred percent agree, but my approach is a little bit different in the fact that I like to kind of get people into your own community infrastructure so you reduce the risk of losing people, but honestly, I think both approaches can work.

Patrick Woods: Cool. Okay, final question. Can you recommend a book or resource, a video, a podcast that you've really enjoyed over time or maybe recently that might be relevant to the audience here? I'll say the one rule is you can't recommend each other's books. We've got some best-selling authors here-

Sam Ramji: I was going to say-

Sam Ramji: ... book right there-

Patrick Woods: yeah, we've got... Yeah, they're all... Yeah, so beside everybody's books here, are there resources you would say like, "Go check this out after the conference today because it's going to really be transformative?"

Jono Bacon: I can say mine right out the gate and it's boring for anyone who've seen me speak before because I was the same book. To me, this is all about mindset. Building communities is nerve-racking, it's scary, and it's the unknown. If you got the right mindset, you'll be successful. If you have an anxious, nervous mindset, it'll be more difficult, so reinforcing your mindset is critical. There's a book called The Obstacle Os the Way by Ryan Holiday, which is about stoicism. It's an incredible way of strengthening your brain to take on difficult challenges, so nothing to do with community really, but it'll help you to be more successful in that as well as other things.

Sam Ramji: I will also go into the way back machine and pick a book because like as Jono says, the challenges are actually timeless. There's some great techniques. Stripe has a great sort of eBook and blog on developing in the open. I think that Robert Wright's book Nonzero is probably the most important one I could recommend. It's a book he wrote about 22 years ago on positive sum games. He took game theory and applied it to like the history of civilization and kind of looked at how might civilization evolve.

Sam Ramji: It took something that was kind of unspeakable, but obvious to me that you should be a good person and you should do nice things for other people so we can all have nice things, but he kind of lays it out into this very discoursive way that if you feel like we do, if we feel like altruism's a good thing, if you feel like community's meaningful, his book can give you the confidence of the rigor and precision of like, "No, there's math here and there's history here and these things are long-term trends." I would recommend Nonzero by Robert Wright.

Patrick Woods: Cool.

Mary Thengvall: Awesome. I've got two different things. One's a book and one's a person who puts out a lot of resources. The book is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, and it definitely touches on community, but has to do a lot with just how we interact with people around the globe. It's one that I've read and continue to go back to you with a very global team at Camunda, and it digs into, why do people do things the way that they do? How do I better understand why some people are more abrupt? Why some people are always apologizing. How do I interact and understand what people actually mean? How do I help them understand what I mean as well? That's been incredibly helpful for me, and I think as we're building more global communities these days, it can really come in handy so that we're not looking at things only from the area that we're from or the community and culture that we're used to.

Mary Thengvall: My second one is I love anything and everything that Carrie Melissa Jones puts out. She just started her yearly cohort of community managers in a course that she runs with them, but she has a book that she wrote last year. She has a newsletter. She has just I think weekly video chats and a whole bunch of resources. She's been in the community space for a long time. I love what she does. She has a lot of great frameworks and things to follow as well, so highly recommend following here on all of the platforms.

Patrick Woods: Yeah, those are fantastic. I'm going to head over to Amazon right after this. Plus what of The culture Map, it's required reading at Orbit. Given our global team, it's been a huge value-add to the culture, and my quick recommendation would be The Art of Gathering. I'm sure a lot of folks have already read that, but it helped me reframe and give specific language to being very intentional about different parts of getting together. Especially as we're doing more in-person stuff, I'm finding the framework and the heuristics really helpful to kind of help people reenter the world after a couple of years of being out of it, so that's been really enjoyable for me as well.

Patrick Woods: With that, everyone, I've taken a lot of notes. I've learned a lot today, so really, really appreciate the time. I know our audience is going to enjoy it as well. Thanks so much for joining us at Nexus today, and we'll see you around.

Up next

Grow and Measure Your Community with Orbit

Nexus 2022

Keynote: Product, Model, and Partners
Keynote: Product, Model, and Partners
Creating Opportunities for Cooperative Work
Creating Opportunities for Cooperative Work
The Secret Sauce to Growing Open Source Community
The Secret Sauce to Growing Open Source Community
Community Driven Growth at Supabase
Community Driven Growth at Supabase
Lessons Learned from Growing On Deck Internationally
Lessons Learned from Growing On Deck Internationally
Using Orbit's Glossary to Communicate Value at Bramble
Using Orbit's Glossary to Communicate Value at Bramble
Fireside chats
Fireside chats
The Power of Asking a Great Question
The Power of Asking a Great Question
Scaling a Thriving Community
Scaling a Thriving Community
A Community-First Approach to Driving Competitive Advantage
A Community-First Approach to Driving Competitive Advantage
Data-Led Community Programs and Strategy
Data-Led Community Programs and Strategy
Community as a Practice: Trajectory and Trends
Community as a Practice: Trajectory and Trends
Grow and Measure Your Community with Orbit
Grow and Measure Your Community with Orbit
Using Orbit to Communicate the Success of Great Events
Using Orbit to Communicate the Success of Great Events
Using the Orbit Model to Demonstrate Community Value
Using the Orbit Model to Demonstrate Community Value
Building a Beta Group or Champions Program in Orbit
Building a Beta Group or Champions Program in Orbit
Git it Right! Measuring What Matters in OSS Contribution
Git it Right! Measuring What Matters in OSS Contribution
Building Go-To-Community Strategy for your Pitch Deck
Building Go-To-Community Strategy for your Pitch Deck
How to Increase Participation in Your Community
How to Increase Participation in Your Community