If you want to build a community, you have to add value beyond just what the product offers.
A lover of all things open source, by day Ahmad is the Principal Architect for TELUS digital where he’s responsible for the architecture that supports millions of Telus customers. He’s the Founder of #TechMasters, a community of thousands of technologists, and Director at Community Builders, an online community built for community managers. He’s a Founder and Editor at The RESTful Web, on the Board of Directors at Full Stack Toronto and the creator of the “Open Development Methodology”, an initiative to redefine modern Software Development Methodologies. Previously, he was VP of Engineering at Mashape, focused on powering API driven software, and a member of Board of Directors for the Open API Initiative at The Linux Foundation. He also blogs on Technology, mentors early stage startups, and builds open source projects. We’re convinced he’s cloned himself and we just can’t prove it yet, so that means one of the possible many Ahmads took some time with us to share what he’s learned along the way…
OpenChannel: You started #TechMasters recently and it’s become a big success with thousands of active members. What do you attribute that success to?
Ahmad Nassri: The backstory is a number of us worked together, we started going our own separate ways but still wanted to stay in touch. Initially, we had a Google Hangouts group, then a Facebook group and we started having industry and technology conversations about products and programming and those conversations became really useful.
Then we started saying, “I have this friend who might be interested in talking about these topics” and we ended up adding more people, a lot of more people.
It was around the same time that Slack started dominating community tooling, so I started a Slack channel simply because it was easier to add people. Everybody sent out the links to the next 10 people they knew with the same mindset and all of the sudden it jumped from 10 to a couple hundred people.
Then conversations turned into weekly topics, where every week one member would say ”how do you approach user testing, mobile development, microservices, etc?” and that would become the theme for the week.
I wanted to share the lessons with more people, not just the few hundred people in the group, so I allowed anybody to put in their email address and become a part of the community. That’s when the membership exploded, going from a couple of hundred people to over 3,000 people.
We’ve gotten a massive influx of people from Brazil because a member wrote an article about us in Brazil, and an influx of people from Eastern Europe because there was an Eastern European blog that mentioned us as a great community. These blogs mention us in their own native context because the formula of themed topics about the technology industry really resonated with them.
We tried to continue with themes every week, but it became too much so we slowed it down to every month, and by we I mean the people I’ve elected to be moderators of the community because I can’t do it all by myself.
They drive the conversation around a certain topic every month, then the summary of that conversation is published as a blog post. They’ve ended up getting a lot of traffic and being featured on sites like Hacker News and Reddit. That feeds back to the whole discovery cycle of the community and bringing more people into it.
OC: How did you pick those people to lead your community? What criteria did you look for?
Ahmad: I looked at the people who were most active and engaged within the community. Those people who are genuinely passionate and always helping others, answering questions and driving conversations. I reach out and say, “You’re doing a great job being part of the community and bringing value to others. I would love for you to be an official admin or moderator.”
We give them that sense of authority and also give them the admin power in Slack, where they can edit anything and deal with issues. As the community grew we started getting spam and bad actors, so we gave people that power and trusted them to use it, and with great power comes great responsibility.
Giving them that power is an extension of what they were already doing, and they self-selected as people who were active in the community. It’s not so much giving them power as much as lifting the switch so they can take action.
OC: If you were starting a developer community today, what are the tactics you would focus on?
Ahmad: For a bit of context, I was VP of Engineering at Mashape, where we built API products and services and was part of the Open API Initiative.
Here’s what most companies don’t understand. If I’m building an API product or software product aimed towards developers, I’m also impersonating the target audience because it’s a developer tool built for developers by developers. Who else is better suited to actually be engaged with the community than the people building the tools themselves?
Usually what you end up seeing is companies engaging with a marketing team, sales team or different departments in the company. It seems to make sense because you want to market your product or API but doing that in the beginning creates a disconnect from the kind of audience your product is meant to serve. You need to understand your audience and if your audience is developers, then you have to be engaged as an active member of the community.
For a developer community around an API or tooling, If you want to build a community, you have to add value beyond just what the product offers. That means you’re a part of the community in good times and bad. You’re helping them answer questions. You’re helping them get to know each other. You’re helping guide that community toward best practices.
It doesn’t have to be about your product and service at the start. Engage with your developers, be a part of the community and be a user of the product or API. There’s no better way than to do it yourself, so be the team that does that.
OC: Why did you start Community Builders? What did you feel was missing?
Ahmad: Community Builders was founded by Ria Lupton, The group started around a common thread: “We’re doing this because we understand the value and genuinely want to be a part of the community that we serve.” The role can be a community leader, community builder, the developer relations, etc.
We realized that the idea of how a company can provide value to its community is not very well understood. The role or title itself may exist but it’s usually thrown under support or marketing functions and it’s not usually the people that are building the product or providing the service. It’s some other team that is tasked with engaging with customers and developers after the fact. There’s a lack of understanding in what the community management role entails and that’s something all industries are in desperate need to clarify.
People get put into these roles because they’re passionate about it. In many cases, the organizations that we’re a part of don’t understand the value and don’t provide the right level of support for their community.
So the mission of Community Builders is not only to help each other, but also to help service the industries and organizations that we’re a part of. Trying to surface that story as something that can be tangible, something that can be measurable, and something that can be better understood and therefore have better resource devoted to it.
We’re also hearing stories of members that are thrown into the role of community manager where there’s no definition, no KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and no clear understanding of what that role means. Part of our purpose is to start surfacing all these metrics and KPIs, and proving the success in taking a better approach to community building.
OC: Then what are the metrics or KPIs that matter? What metrics should people track and why?
Ahmad: Stage one in my view is quantifying success. Is this a successful community or not? Translating that is hard, but the only thing you can measure, I think, is engagement. If it’s a one-sided conversation, then you’re doing something wrong. If it’s just content being pushed or company announcements to the community and there’s nothing coming back, then the community itself is not engaging. If they’re not discussing, sharing, or taking it upon themselves to contribute to the community, that means they are probably not getting value.
That to me is the engagement metric. That means members have recognized some value in the community and they’re trying to bring in their own voice to it, and your role is to help guide and amplify them.
Your measurement for the community’s success is never going to be aligned with the measurements for your core product or service. One thing will feed from the other, but you should always have the system for your community be separate from your KPIs and success criteria for your core product or service.
For engagement, I don’t know if I can come up with a better definition but it’s not just people talking to each other. In Tech Masters, I meet people that say, “I always watch what people share and talk about, but I’ve never posted anything myself.” Then I follow with the question “Why aren’t you talking or saying things?” And they’ll say “Oh, no. This is great. I’m getting value out of this. I’m learning things”
Some people have learned technologies and made connections, but they never post. That’s still a form of engagement. It’s not only people who are talking, sharing and posting. I call them lurkers, and not in a bad way, they consume the content and get real value. That level of engagement is an even harder thing to measure
OC: What will be different about building a developer community five years from now?
Ahmad: A lot of people try to think of what’s next but the better question is “why”. I have a framework I use for documentation, development practice, life, anything. Always have the why, the what, and then the how.
For the “why” of building a developer community, the common thread is it’s all about learning in one form or another. It’s all about sharing, learning and learning in new ways and understanding new tools or APIs. The “what” of today can be a meetup, Slack group or Stack Overflow, but the “why” is the same.
Five years from now, maybe we’ll exchange Q&A forums with live hangout sessions. You see a lot of video penetration nowadays and that might take over traditional documentation and Q&A style tools. Beyond that maybe we’ll get into the territory of VR and matrix-style plugins for learning but the “why” will still be focused around learning technology and software development.
We might start seeing bigger communities, the Stack Overflow community is an example of a massive community that’s distributed and focused on everything in tech. Or, perhaps we’ll see very focused communities like the Java Spring Framework Developers, and while the tool itself may die off that community will have evolved to the next thing.
OC: What developer community do you admire and why?
Ahmad: One I admire the most is the Stack Overflow community. People seriously spend a lot of time helping each other and answering question and solving each other’s problems.
Also the Node JS Community. It’s a massive community that grew really fast and that can bring a lot of challenges. They’ve managed to maintain a healthy community that’s productive and a place where everyone can feel inclusive and safe to participate.
OC: What’s something outside of work that most people don’t know about you?
Ahmad: I never had a dog growing up, then five years ago I got a dog! She’s a Shih Tzu, her name is Ruby, but I want to emphasize she’s not called “Ruby” because of the programming language! My wife and I are addicted to spending every waking moment possible with Ruby!
OC: We would have assumed that. Do you take her to work?
Ahmad: A lot of people assume that. It’s not the reason we called her that, we just thought the name was cute. I think we can if we sneak them past security.
We want to thank Ahmad for taking time away from Ruby (the dog) to share his insights, if you want to connect with him you can join him on the TechMasters community, follow him on Twitter or email him at email@example.com and if you want more pictures of Ruby, follow him on Instagram.